By The Hill Staff - 10/03/06 12:00 AM EDT
Given the issues that rate high on members’ minds, you could do worse, if you are going to start a lobbying shop, than having a background in immigration or counterterrorism.
As a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security responsible for border and transportation security, C. Stewart Verdery has both.
And he’s good at golf. Verdery, whose brother is a golf pro, carries an eight handicap, which likely makes him a sought-out golfing partner.
Verdery will rely on all of his experience, which includes six years as a Capitol Hill aide, to build his own lobbying shop in a very crowded field. He has ten clients already, people he brought with him from another shop where he lobbied on immigration and homeland security issues.
Verdery started at DHS in 2002. He worked under former Rep. Asa Hutchison (R-Ark.), helping the year-old department to develop policies on immigration, cargo and other transportation security issues.
“What we were working on is what largely had failed in 9-11,” Verdery says. “Watch lists weren’t communicated to inspectors, weak entry-exit procedures, no way to track people who were here.”
Two days after Verdery started, then Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that U.S. Visit, which uses digital fingerprints to track people who come into the country, would be up and running in a year, after years of fits and starts.
By January 2004, the agency announced that the system was operational. Verdery participated in that effort and calls it one of his biggest accomplishments during his time at DHS.
The system has caught over 1,200 “bad guys,” Verdery said.
At the time, the department where Verdery worked housed two-thirds of the massive new agency. Verdery led an office of 30 DHS employees, an experience he equates with running a new startup. In addition to improving counterterrorism efforts, Verdery said the office also battled with a variety of inner-office information technology problems, such as Blackberries that didn’t work.
And there was only one place to eat at the new campus.
“A lot of people lost a lot of weight while at Homeland Security, either because of the stress or eating at Subway,” Verdery said.
Verdery left DHS to join Mehlman Vogel and Castagnetti, then a new lobbying shop on the rise on K Street. Verdery had gone to law school at the University of Virginia with Bruce Mehlman, who was an assistant secretary at the Commerce Department for technology policy before becoming a lobbyist, and the two had talked about working at a lobbying shop together.
Verdery says he decided to leave because he wasn’t able to bring in the help he felt he needed to develop a practice based on immigration and homeland security.
Also, Verdery, a lobbyist at Vivendi Universal, then a major media company, the year before joining DHS, found it hard to bring in telecom clients that didn’t have conflicts with existing firm clients.
But he describes the split as amicable.
Verdery’s new shop, opened just in August, is the Monument Policy Group, which is not to be confused with Monument Strategies, another new entrant on K Street that specializes in appropriations.
Verdery has ten clients out of the gate, brought over from Mehlman Vogel and Castegnetti. The clients include the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, a business group pushing broad immigration reform, and the Retail Industry Leaders Association, which hired Verdery to lobby on cargo security issues.
Verdery says he plans to hire additional lobbyists for his firm, including a Democrat, but for now he has yet to hang his pictures with prominent power players on his office wall.
His experience with the issues that are the foundation of his practice date to his days on Capitol Hill. Verdery spent six years there, working for Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Don Nickles (R-Okla.) and the Justice Committee under then Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
He handled juvenile crime issues at the time of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, in Colorado. And he worked as counsel to Nickles during the impeachment of President Clinton.
“When CNN ran the floor view, my head was right below the logo. You couldn’t see me but I was there.”
Verdery’s Hill experience went from one of the most divisive issues in Congress in recent memory to one of the most unifying, though tragic. Verdery was walking back to the Capitol, just days after the birth of his second child, when the Pentagon was hit by the Islamist terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. He was at the Capitol when members sang “God Bless America” that night. In the next months, he worked to help pass the Patriot Act and provide new funding to improve transportation security.
“A lot of the work on Capitol Hill is either to help a particular member or for political positioning,” Verdery said.
“But that year you knew everything you were working on really mattered and there was a sense of bipartisanship that doesn’t happen very often.”
Last week, Verdery was back on the Hill, lobbying for bipartisan support for the port security bill that Congress eventually passed just before the recess. The good bill, in Verdery’s view, was an improbable consequence of what he has called an “embarrassing overreaction” to the planned purchase of American ports by Dubai Ports World earlier in the year.
He lauded lawmakers in an opinion piece in the Washington Times for resisting the “temptation to undertake promises that capture headlines and score political points but would fail to actually improve security.”
He was talking about the fact that the bill did not mandate certain screening technologies, such as density X-rays. Verdery said the technology remains too immature for widespread deployment.
“We’ve still got a long way to go in educating the American people on what is the right level of protection,” Verdery says.
“Do we want to build a Fortress America? Bringing people, bringing cargo, and bringing airplanes to our shores is risky. But the risk of turning those away is greater.”
He has also lobbied for broad immigration reform beyond the enforcement measures pushed by House Republicans.
Cutting off illegal immigrants from the workforce would be a “horrifically disruptive economic event.” But broad reform, which Congress did not finish before leaving, is going to be “hard to get done,” says Verdery.