A conservative Republican senator/songwriter, an ’80s R&B singer who is inexplicably massive in the Middle East, a real-estate mogul, several ambassadors from around the globe and a Grammy-winning producer who is best known for moving musical mountains — not political ones.
That’s the unlikely coalition of people who got together — “Super Friends” style — to help work out a deal for Atlanta producer Dallas Austin to avoid a four-year prison sentence in Dubai (see “Hitmaker Dallas Austin Released From Dubai Jail” ).
According to The New York Times, Austin’s pardoning last week after his conviction on drug possession charges came courtesy of some high-level string-pulling. Behind the feat: Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch, singer Lionel Richie, producer Quincy Jones and a fleet of well-connected businessmen and lawyers who vouched for Austin’s character.
The often confusing tale reads like an international political thriller. Austin, 35, known for producing everyone from Madonna to TLC, flew home Wednesday, less than a day after being sentenced to four years in jail for carrying just more than a gram of cocaine when he entered Dubai on May 19 to attend a birthday party for model Naomi Campbell. He pleaded guilty Sunday to possessing 1.26 grams of cocaine and a few capsules of Ecstasy (see “Hitmaker Dallas Austin Pleads Guilty To Drug Charges in Dubai” ).
According to the Times, not long after his arrest (see “Hitmaker Dallas Austin Imprisoned In Dubai On Drug Charges”
), the wheels of justice began turning on Austin’s behalf, beginning with a few calls from Senator Hatch to the ambassador and consul of the United Arab Emirates embassy in Washington, D.C.
Austin’s lawyers asked Hatch to make calls on the producer’s behalf, the Times reported.
Following Hatch’s call, Richie received a call from the UAE’s consul in Washington asking for a character reference, the “All Night Long” singer told the Times.
“It was, ’Tell me what kind of guy is Dallas Austin,’ ” Richie said. “I said, ’Listen, this is a great guy. He’s done a great job for the community. A gangster, a hoodlum, a thug, he’s not.’ ”
In a lucky coincidence, one of Austin’s lawyers, Joel Katz, also happens to represent Hatch, a singer/songwriter who has recorded a number of religious and patriotic albums with titles such as My God Is Love, Put Your Arms Around the World, America United and How His Glory Shines.
In another unlikely stroke of luck, Hatch is a proponent of rehabilitation for drug offenders and has been involved in efforts to revise federal sentencing guidelines regarding cocaine, as well as advocating treatment for nonviolent offenders. In a statement, Hatch said he was “confident that this talented young man will learn from this experience.”
Even though one of Richie’s managers, Randy Phillips, said Austin was lucky to have known the right people who would go out on a limb to save him from a potentially harrowing prison experience, the Times reported that such pardons are not unusual in Dubai.
After Austin was arrested by police at the Dubai International Airport, almost immediately Katz hired three local attorneys, who were able to get the initial charge reduced from drug trafficking — which can carry a life sentence — to possession. At that time, discussions had already begun about securing a pardon for Austin, since he only had a small amount of drugs intended for personal use.
Katz also reached out to a Washington law firm with ties to Hatch, who has pull in Dubai because he supported the failed bid earlier this year by the UAE-based DP World company to manage U.S. ports. The lawyer put in a call to Prince Abdullah of neighboring Bahrain as well, thinking the prince might have some advice given his recent assistance in helping troubled pop star Michael Jackson move to his country.
While Katz was working the Washington angle, one of Austin’s musical mentors, producer Jones, contacted his friend, Virginia real estate investor Joe Robert, who has interests in the Persian Gulf; Robert is also a friend of Austin’s.
Jones and Robert called some of their key contacts in the Middle East, including senior UAE officials, according to the Times. But perhaps the biggest favor called in was from Richie, who is a huge cult favorite throughout much of the Arab world and who is familiar with several senior officials in Dubai after performing there twice earlier this year.
Though it was unknown whether the pardon would happen until the last minute, once Austin pleaded guilty and told the court he did not mean to break the law, the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammad bin Rashid al-Maktum, granted the pardon four hours later. His ordeal over, Austin boarded a flight for New York and released a statement Friday night.
“This unfortunate experience has had a profound effect on me, and I regret any grief caused to my family, friends and business associates,” the statement read. A spokesperson for Austin declined to comment for this story and Katz deferred comment to Austin’s publicist.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Austin attended church services Sunday in Atlanta at the Word of Faith Family Worship Center along with attorney Katz. It was his first public appearance since his return from Dubai, but when Bishop Dale Bronner acknowledged the producer and Katz from the pulpit and showed them on the big screen, Austin declined to address the congregation.