Former House Dem leader Gephardt hired as lobbyist by firm battling SEIU

Former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) has been hired to lobby for a major food-services company that has faced criticism from a powerful union.

Gephardt and Tom O’Donnell, his former chief of staff, have registered to lobby on “labor/management related matters” by Sodexo, according to lobbying disclosure records.

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The French-owned company has been embroiled in a battle with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) over a labor organizing campaign, and Gephardt is known for his labor ties.

SEIU is running online ads that show videos of Sodexo employees complaining about worker conditions at the company. They have organized public protests of Sodexo and argue the company is paying its employees wages below poverty levels.

Sodexo has set up a blog to respond to charges from the union. The company argues SEIU is spreading misinformation and its campaign is “part of an ongoing dispute with rival unions, including Unite Here, designed to attract new members.”

The company has also hired Jeff Trammell, a former senior adviser to ex-Vice President Al Gore, to lobby for the firm.

The contracts with Gephardt’s lobbying group and Trammell and Co. represent the first time the food-services company has turned to outside lobbyists to work in Washington, according to a review of records by The Hill. Overall, the group has spent more than $5.6 million on internally hired lobbyists since 2002.

“We have hired those two groups for general business purposes,” said Jaya Bohlman, Sodexo’s vice president for public relations, in a voice mail to The Hill. Sodexo representatives did not respond to requests to elaborate further on the two lobbying contracts.

Gephardt Group Government Affairs has been lobbying for Sodexo since May 5, according to lobbying records, while Trammell and Co. has been lobbying for the company since May 3. Mike Shaffer, a former deputy director for constituent outreach for the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), is also lobbying for Sodexo at Trammell and Co.

Both lobby firms declined to comment for this piece, saying they do not discuss client matters with the press.

A prominent Democrat and presidential candidate in 1988 and 2004, Gephardt earned a reputation as a big union supporter. His firm’s website says the former House leader “is widely recognized as an innovative thinker in the area of labor relations” and that he has earned “the trust of the leadership and members of many of the largest international labor unions in the United States, including the Teamsters, the Steelworkers and several of the AFL-CIO organizations.”

Part of his firm’s work involves helping business executives develop strategies for negotiations and collective bargaining between companies’ managers and their workers’ unions.

Since creating the firm in 2005, Gephardt and his team have been hired to lobby for some of the most prominent names in business and finance. Boeing, Goldman Sachs, Visa and others have all hired Gephardt at some point, according to lobbying disclosure records.

Those lobbying contracts, however, have earned him the ire of labor groups. Last month, SEIU members protested Gephardt along with other well-known Democratic lobbyists, including Steve Elmendorf and Tony Podesta, in a large K Street rally.

Renee Asher, SEIU’s assistant director of communications for property services, said she thinks Sodexo’s hiring of Gephardt has little to do with the organizing campaign her union is running. Instead, she believes it has more to do with lawmakers’ concerns over a massive U.S. Marine Corps food-services contract for which Sodexo is responsible.

“No matter how many shiny shoes they put in the halls of Congress to protect this contract, it still stinks,” Asher said.

The eight-year, $881 million Marine food-services contract is due to end soon and will likely attract new bidders once it is up again. Sodexo is facing questions from Congress on its handling of the contract.

In April, Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) called on the Government Accountability Office to investigate the contract for government waste and food safety complaints.

The lawmaker argued there “are significant concerns that Sodexo’s food services have been more expensive and less effective than originally promised.”

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Despite the harsh organizing campaign this year, SEIU and Sodexo have come to terms in the past. In 2008, the Wall Street Journal reported that SEIU had negotiated an agreement with Sodexo to organize only in certain company locations.

Asher said that agreement has expired and the SEIU wants to organize more workers at the company.

“We do want to form a union, and they are trying to try stop us forming one here in the United States,” she said.

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