Chicago Tribune Profiles IRI’s Sam LaHood

Peoria native among those caught up in Egypt tug of war
Chicago Tribune
By Andy Grimm

When Lorne Craner hired Sam LaHood to lead the Egypt office of the International Republican Institute 18 months ago, he advised LaHood that he should strive to stay in the background as the country took small steps toward democracy.

The tumult of the Arab Spring proved Craner’s advice wrong, and in the past three months, LaHood, 36, has found himself in the international spotlight because of a tug of war between the U.S. and the military regime running Egypt.

Several similar organizations have been targeted in a monthslong investigation of foreign influence in Egypt’s politics, and dozens of employees appear likely to face charges. LaHood, a Peoria native and son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, is by far the most prominent name, and usually the only one mentioned in news stories.

“He has had a very unique experience, that is for sure,” Craner, president of the IRI, said Sunday afternoon, several hours after talking to LaHood. “He was very calm and cool, sort of an unflappable person. Those are qualities we look for in the people we hire.”

The International Republican Institute provides nuts-and-bolts political know-how to politicians in developing democracies around the world, Craner said. In countries that have languished under totalitarian rule for decades, skills like making pamphlets or hosting a news conference are virtually nonexistent, Craner said.

LaHood was uniquely suited for the task, Craner said. His father, the son of Lebanese immigrants, served seven terms in Congress representing the Peoria area and had also been a state legislator. Sam LaHood first visited Cairo as a college student, and he later returned to study at American University of Beirut, where he earned a master’s degree.

Sam LaHood has spent most of the past dozen years in the Middle East, working for the State Department in Iraq, where he toured the war-torn country with reporters and helped with coverage of the trial of Saddam Hussein.

In 2008, he returned to the U.S. to work as an advance man on John McCain’s presidential campaign. Afterward, he started a media consulting firm in Washington and worked there until taking the job with the institute. He got married last year and lives in a Cairo apartment near Tahrir Square.

Few of LaHood’s colleagues in Cairo even knew he was related to a Cabinet member, said Scott Mastic, director of the institute’s Middle East programs.

“He’s a very laid-back, unassuming guy,” Mastic said. “People we’ve worked with programmatically there don’t even know he’s Ray LaHood’s son. They’re surprised when they find out.”

Craner said the institute has operated offices around the world for 30 years, occasionally drawing scrutiny from local governments, but the raids in Egypt and the criminal charges against his staff are unprecedented. The Cairo office had been running since 2005 and had been under surveillance by then-President Hosni Mubarak, who placed strict limitations on the work the institute and similar groups were able to do.

When protests erupted in Tahrir Square, Mubarak’s government criticized the group, making false accusations that the institute was passing out cash to demonstrators and bankrolling political campaigns, Craner said. Before finding out he was banned from traveling outside the country, LaHood had twice been interviewed by investigators at the Ministry of Justice, for more than four hours each time.

“The questions tended to have a very political slant that didn’t give us a lot of confidence in the investigation,” Craner said. “They were sort of along the lines of, ‘You’ve been robbing the Egyptian people of money they would otherwise have,’ not really questions at all.”

LaHood had “laid low” during the Tahrir Square uprising, keeping tabs on his staff of about 40 employees, mostly Egyptians, Mastic said. But after Mubarak’s ouster, LaHood had worked tirelessly as the group helped numerous local politicians in the country’s first free elections in decades.

“The irony is, the situation for us has gotten far worse than it was under Mubarak,” Craner said.

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