WASHINGTON — While Congress and the White House publicly battled over detainee policy in a new defense bill, a far more obscure fight erupted behind the scenes involving treasure hunters, doubloons and shipwrecks.
A small tweak in the House version of the defense bill — just two words and two commas — could have made it easier for Tampa-based treasure hunting firm Odyssey Marine Exploration to take custody of a $500 million trove of Spanish coins from an Atlantic shipwreck, which is believed to be the richest bounty ever recovered from the sea.
The little-noticed proposal became the focus of a quintessential Washington lobbying battle waged almost entirely behind closed doors, with the potential fate of hundreds of millions of dollars in booty hanging in the balance.
The change in language, pushed by the company's lobbyists and a group of Florida lawmakers, alarmed the Spanish government and the Obama administration, which said it feared the impact it might have on the treatment of other sunken warships, which are viewed as both archaeological sites and hallowed graves.
In the end, the arguments backed by the two governments prevailed, with the proposed shipwreck language stricken from a final conference bill approved by House and Senate negotiators late Monday.
"I don't know who's right about the dispute over the buried treasure, but it's in litigation so I think the courts should sort out what's right," said Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., who objected to the provision.
This Washington lobbying tale begins at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean south of Portugal, where Odyssey Marine Exploration recovered 17 tons of gold and silver coins and other loot in 2007 from a wreck it has dubbed the "Black Swan."
But Spain and many marine archaeologists maintain that the treasure comes from the Nuestra Senora de las Mercedes, a 36-gun Spanish frigate sunk by British warships in 1804. The incident marked a key moment in Spain's history, dragging the kingdom back into the Napoleonic Wars and arguably ensuring the eventual decline of its empire.
The two sides have been battling for custody of the treasure in U.S. federal courts, which have repeatedly sided with Spain, Peru and 25 descendants of those aboard the Mercedes, saying the frigate is protected under sovereign immunity laws. As the court fight dragged on, however, Odyssey and its Washington lobbying firm, Jenkins Hill Consulting, embarked on an alternate path to help Odyssey's case: a wording change to a 2004 law called the Sunken Military Craft Act. At issue is a section of the law defining "sunken military craft" as "any sunken warship, naval auxiliary, or other vessel that was owned or operated by a government on military noncommercial service when it sank."
"Sunken warships are historic sites and the grave sites of sailors and soldiers lost at sea in the service of their nation," said James Goold of Covington & Burling, who represents Spain.
The dispute over the Mercedes is part of a broader, global debate over control of undersea treasure.