K Street is cautious in wake of Abramoff pleas

The Electric Power Supply Association (EPSA) never hired Jack Abramoff as a lobbyist or flew a lawmaker to Scotland for a round of golf, but the scandal surrounding the former “superlobbyist,” including the infamous golf trip to St. Andrews that he apparently paid for, has affected EPSA’s lobbying efforts nevertheless.

Sensing new reluctance toward business-backed travel, the group last year canceled an event it sponsored at Nemacolin, a 125-luxury-room resort in the woody mountains of southwestern Pennsylvania a few hours’ drive from Washington.

For the four previous years, EPSA had invited congressional staff to the resort for briefings on electricity policy. Lobbyists who’ve attended say the trip wasn’t fluff, although it offered the opportunity to play a round of golf or two on Nemacolin’s PGA-level course. The seminars, put on by government officials and industry executives, explain a complicated world of electricity policy, replete with unfamiliar acronyms and odd phrases such as “native load” or “retail wheeling.”

With the guilty pleas of Abramoff and his business partner Michael Scanlon promising to keep the spotlight on the perquisites lawmakers and staffers enjoy, EPSA has yet to decide whether it will host the event this year.

“We’re not in the big leagues in terms of trips and fundraising, but people are reconsidering what they are doing” in light of the scandal, said John Shelk, who directed lobbying efforts at the National Mining Association before being hired as EPSA’s new president last spring.

The canceled trip is just one example of an Abramoff effect on K Street. For the most part, the impact has been felt on the fringe, but broader changes could be coming from a Congress eager to distance itself from the scandal.

Lobbyists report canceled events, more judicious use of corporate jets, or new care in e-mail communications with clients to ensure nothing suspect is mistakenly implied. (Prosecutors have used e-mails between Abramoff and Scanlon to build their case.)

“This has caused people to take a very healthy assessment of what they’ve been doing, and how they’ve been doing it,” said Joel Jankowsky, who directs the lobbying practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

Jankowsky, who served on the staff to House Speaker Carl Albert (D-Okla.) in the 1970s, said lobbyists have increasingly sought advice from his firm’s ethics-law practice to make sure they are following the letter of the law on gift-ban rules or congressional travel.

“Everybody is taking a step back and evaluating what they are doing,” agreed Paul Miller, a lobbyist and president of the American League of Lobbyists.

But Miller and others on K Street are reluctant to draw too many lessons from Abramoff’s fall. “This isn’t about lobbyists lying, cheating and stealing; it’s about one lobbyist who did that,” Miller said.

Abramoff has pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials, as well as hiding illegal income and tax evasion. Even if he continues to cooperate with federal prosecutors, Abramoff could face 10 years or more in jail. Scanlon also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to bribe public officials.

While the activities of the two may be an aberration, there is nervousness among lobbyists that a host of new rules will be forced upon them.

“There is concern that if Congress isn’t careful about how it responds to this excess, they may end up throwing everything out,” Shelk said. “All trips are not equal.”

Trade associations can pay for congressional travel as long as the trip serves some educational purpose. Lobbyists are not allowed to pay for trips, a rule Abramoff apparently violated by paying for the golf outing to St. Andrews.

Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana who now lobbies, also defended congressional travel as a good way for lawmakers to learn about industries that they regulate. And he came to the profession’s defense as well. “Lobbyists are to Congress what lawyers are to the courts,” Johnston said.Lobbyists also worry that congressional focus on their industry will keep Congress from taking up legislation that could benefit their clients.

But Jankowsky, for one, said the reform discussion is needed.

“Right or wrong, the public has lost confidence in the system. Whatever it takes to restore the public’s confidence is what’s needed.”