Dem-leaning lobby shops see influx of foreign clients

Several Democratic firms have aggressively moved into the business of lobbying for foreign governments since the election of President Obama.

Lobby shops affiliated with Democrats have taken on numerous clients and have seen their revenue from foreign sources grow markedly, according to Justice Department records. 

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Well-known Democratic lobbyists have taken on foreign clients for the first time as the Obama administration has moved forward on a number of foreign policy 

issues, including the pending trade deals with South Korea, Colombia and Panama.

Firms that had little or no investment in foreign lobbying before Obama’s election have built client rosters and say they are looking to expand in the field.

“I think the ambassadors talk,” Tony Podesta told The Hill. “We have managed to build a practice that wasn’t there some years ago.”

Podesta — a well-known Democratic Party fundraiser and brother of John Podesta, the former Clinton White House chief of staff who led Obama’s transition team — is the head of the Podesta Group.

Since 2007, Podesta’s firm has been lobbying for the Egyptian embassy in Washington as part of the PLM Group, a strategic consortium formed by Podesta, former Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) and former Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.). But in 2009, Podesta Group on its own began to take on a number of foreign clients and now has active contracts with the embassies or various government agencies of Albania, India, Georgia, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand, according to Justice records.

That has led to a surge in revenue earned from foreign lobbying for Podesta. In 2009, the firm earned more than $300,000 in fees from its foreign clients, according to Justice records. In 2010, it earned more than $1.8 million from its foreign roster, about six times its take from the prior year.

With Democrats in control of the country’s foreign-policy machinery at the White House and State Department, it’s not surprising that Democratic lobbyists have found success with foreign governments. But Podesta credits the hard work of his international practice group, rather than party affiliation, for the increase.

Stephen Rademaker leads Podesta’s international practice group, which includes both Democratic and Republican lobbyists, since coming over from BGR Group earlier this year. The former national security adviser to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and senior State Department official says politics are less in play when it comes to foreign policy.

“You have to persuade on the merits,” Rademaker said. “Most of the time, you are in the hands of the career foreign service. They don’t care about whether I have political connections.”

Other Democratic firms have also done well by branching out into foreign lobbying.

Former House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) has seen his lobbying practice bloom, which is partly due to his firm taking on foreign clients.

Gephardt Group Government Affairs has one of the most-watched lobbying contracts in town, representing the Turkish embassy, which it first signed in 2008. The firm also advocates for the government of El Salvador and has lobbied for Georgia’s government.

Like Podesta, foreign lobbying has resulted in serious income for Gephardt’s firm. The ex-congressman’s firm earned $150,000 in fees from foreign clients in 2008; close to $1.2 million in 2009; and more than $2 million in 2010, according to Justice records.

Other Democratic lobby shops have begun to follow in Podesta’s and Gephardt’s footsteps, signing up foreign clients for the first time.

In April of this year, Elmendorf | Ryan signed a four-month, $140,000 contract with Proexport Colombia, the country’s trade and tourism agency, according to Justice records. The South American country has boosted its lobbying — also recently signing with Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart Inc. — as it tries to push through its long-stalled trade deal on Capitol Hill this year.

Those working for Colombia at the firm include Steve Elmendorf, a former senior adviser to Gephardt, and Jimmy Ryan, once chief counsel and floor policy director for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), according to Justice records.

Capitol Hill Strategies has also entered the foreign lobbying game for the first time. The firm signed a yearlong, $180,000 contract with its first foreign client — the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, which represents Taiwan — in October 2010, according to Justice records.

Led by former senior Clinton White House aide and House Ways and Means Committee aide Chuck Brain, the firm has Paul Bock, Sen. Herb Kohl’s (D-Wis.) former chief of staff, lobbying for its foreign client.

Lobbying for foreign governments has often been a non-starter for many on K Street, since it can lead to criticism from the press and lawmakers. Podesta said his firm is careful in selecting clients and has turned down at least one contract with a foreign government.

“We’re careful about what we do, what we say and who we work for. It’s not any different from working for any other client,” Podesta said. “You can have a client that is in the middle of a natural disaster, a big recall or an oil spill. Clients with no issues and spotless records are probably in the minority of everyone’s clients.”