News and articles relating to the scandal surrounding Washington D.C. lobbyist Jack Abramoff

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Outrage over Abramoff case belies lobbyists' place in politics

Sunday, January 22, 2006
Stephen Koff
Plain Dealer Bureau Chief
Washington- No one's excusing Jack Abramoff, the influence peddler who is spilling secrets to the Justice Department about his scheme to bribe members of Congress. But those who say they're shocked, simply shocked, over the mixing of lobbying, politics and lawmaking may be just a tad disingenuous.

Consider some ordinary, perfectly legal, everyday ways in which lobbyists and members of Congress mixed recently:

Last Tuesday, Rep. Deborah Pryce, a ranking Republican from Columbus, held a fund-raising dinner at a Capitol Hill townhouse purchased by the Fluor Corp. for its lobbying offices and rented out for political functions. Receipts have not yet been reported to the Federal Election Commission, but if this was typical of Washington dinners, money from lobbyists or their clients dominated the take.

In November, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying group for the nuclear power industry, flew Reps. Tim Ryan, Democrat of Niles, and Steve LaTourette, Republican of Concord Township, to Las Vegas. It put them up at the plush Bellagio Hotel and, records show, paid for LaTourette's wife, Jennifer, a private lobbyist whose clients are unrelated to the nuclear lobby, to come along.

Then it flew the lawmakers by helicopter to tour Yucca Mountain, where the industry and federal government want to store depleted nuclear fuel. Mrs. LaTourette did not go on the tour, the trip sponsor says; she was left to do as she pleased in Vegas, as other spouses are on these trips.

This month, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay permanently stepped down from congressional leadership amid the lobbying-and-ethics scandal blanketing Capitol Hill. Yet as John Boehner, of West Chester, Ohio, and Roy Blunt, of Missouri, whose wife is a lobbyist for Altria Corp., launched campaigns to succeed DeLay, each had lobbyists quietly helping with strategy and media outreach, according to the newspaper Roll Call.

Outrageous? Outside the Beltway, it might seem so, considering that both houses of Congress claim to be eager to distance themselves from all things related to lobbying. With Abramoff's courthouse admission that he plotted to bribe members of Congress with trips, entertainment and political contributions in exchange for legislative favors, many in Congress want to be perceived as operating in a lobbying-free zone. They're considering enacting bans on activities including privately funded trips.

They're especially anxious that Rep. Bob Ney of east-central Ohio has already been identified as a Justice Department target, although he says he is innocent.

Yet several lobbyists and others involved in politics acknowledge that this sudden desire to push lobbyists toward the exits, driven largely by media attention, seems a little phony. The fact is, they say, lobbyists and politicians are inextricably linked.

"It is true that virtually all members [of Congress] raise funds for their campaigns or for leadership PACs," says Bruce Gates, a lobbyist whose firm represents Microsoft, General Electric and many other companies. "And it is true that virtually all of those funds that are raised in or around Washington, D.C., are somehow associated with individuals who are either lobbyists by profession or have an interest in government."

Gates, a congressional staffer before becoming a lobbyist, helps raise money for Boehner and Republicans, which neither violates lobbying laws nor congressional rules. He's treasurer of Boehner's political action committee, which Boehner uses to write checks to other politicians, and he sets up late-night parties for Boehner and friends at political conventions to entertain the political elite.

It's one of the ways political business is conducted - and whether the public thinks it's right or wrong, few on Capitol Hill profess genuine shock.

Lobbyists hired

as campaign treasurers

Lobbyists from American Continental Group are the forces behind the wildly successful Freshmen PAC, which raises money to re-elect Republican freshmen in Congress. The wife of a lobbyist and adviser to House Speaker Dennis Hastert is treasurer for Hastert's leadership PAC.

Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has a leadership PAC whose treasurer, Janice Enright, has worked as a lobbyist alongside another Hillary Clinton adviser, former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, FEC and Senate lobbying registrations show. Al Gore's campaign treasurer in 2000 was a lobbyist, and 79 members of Congress have appointed lobbyists to be treasurers of their congressional campaigns or leadership PACs since 1998, says the Center for Public Integrity.

Lobbyists, simply put, are involved, and sometimes it's hard to keep them out.

Boehner's spokesman, Don Seymour, acknowledges that there has been "communication with lobbyists" in the congressman's campaign to become House majority leader. But Seymour adds that "even those who are personal friends with John have been told point blank that John has to win this on his own and that, quite frankly, we'd rather they were not involved."

But the fact is that they are. The expectation in Washington has almost never been otherwise.

"Where do you draw the line?" asks Sean Spicer, a Pryce spokesman who has worked on policy and politics for House Republicans. "Do you say, 'You can't stay involved in the political world if you're a lobbyist'?

"I've held fund-raisers for local candidates, I've been on the host committee of other members of Congress that I particularly find enjoyable, and I used to be on the board of this thing called the Young Elephants PAC that raised money to elect more Republicans to the House," he says. "Do we draw the line and say if you join one industry, you can't stay involved in it as well?"

The lobbying world makes clear it would never succumb to such an edict, and unless the campaign finance system were to change dramatically, politicians have good reason not to want them to. In just the last presidential election, 52 lobbyists were major Bush campaign fund-raisers, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

"That's why D.C. has very few smokestacks," says Alex Knott, the center's political editor. "The major industry is policy and the influence of that policy."

It's not just a Washington phenomenon. Two of the big names in Ohio political circles are Alex Arshinkoff, a fund-raiser for President Bush's election, chairman of the Summit County Republican Party and a lobbyist; and Paul Tipps, a former Ohio Democratic Party chairman and a former lobbyist. Tipps was one of the most plugged-in Democrats in the state.

With system here to stay,

some urge strict reporting

Orientation into this universe begins soon after politicians are elected. They want to improve the world, and to do that, Tipps says, they have to stay in office, which means "that they've got to raise money."

"And anybody that steps up and says, 'Look, I care enough about your future and your family and what you can do for your district, and I want to help you raise the money,' they become awfully good friends.

"Does that mean the legislator will do something he shouldn't do for them? Overwhelmingly, no," Tipps says. "But it means that while they're sitting in the committee and their cell phone rings, and I happen to be that fund-raiser, and it's my number, it gets answered."

Several lobbyists interviewed for this story insisted that, well-known money-grubbing abuses notwithstanding, the relationships are not as mercenary as critics suggest. Nevertheless, lobbyists and lawmakers know that their relationships don't look good, and many take pains to keep them out of the public eye. It is largely through public records - trip disclosure forms filed by members of Congress, Federal Election Commission records filed by PACs, campaign records itemizing donations and disbursements - that reporters and interest groups find out.

That's why some lawmakers, including Boehner, say the key to keeping the system honest is to require strict reporting. That assumes the lobbying reports will be accurate - that no more Jack Abramoffs lurk on K Street.

Knott, of the Center for Public Integrity, is highly skeptical, considering the slipshod or incomplete way many lobbying reports are now filed.

But David Marventano, a Fluor Corp. lobbyist and former staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is one of the believers.

Observing that records on Pryce and on Fluor and its Capitol Hill townhouse are what brought him to a reporter's attention, he said, "You can find out what we're doing. All you have to do is do the work and look it up."

© 2006 The Plain Dealer


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