Rhoads got into lobbying by the BRAC door

Barry Rhoads has not missed the first day of hunting season with his World War II-veteran father since he was 12. And this year, 38 years later, the Monday after Thanksgiving will be no different for Rhoads, who grew up in rural northwestern Pennsylvania.
Patrick G. Ryan
Barry Rhoads

For Rhoads — the sought-after, energetic CEO of the Rhoads Group — Thanksgiving and hunting season are a welcome respite from a tumultuous summer and a hectic congressional fall schedule.

When the spotlight shone on the junior senator from South Dakota, GOP darling John Thune (R), this summer as he fought to keep Ellsworth Air Force Base off the Pentagon’s chopping block, Rhoads’s name could not escape the notice of those who had all eyes turned to the fight.

The Rhoads Group, along with Kutak Rock LLP, was hired to save Ellsworth from the Pentagon’s 2005 round of base realignments and closures, and implicitly to keep Thune’s campaign promise to ensure that the Air Force base remains open.

“Thune worked doggedly,” said Rhoads, who sat in numerous meetings with the senator and his staff this summer. “This deal was not preordained that he was going to win. That base was at risk.”

And the Pittsburgh Steelers fan adds: “Thune was a great quarterback.”

The high-profile South Dakota fight was one of the many fights that kept Rhoads and his staff working 80-hour weeks over recess. Add to the list Mississippi, New Jersey, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio and South Carolina, where communities all put up a fight to save the military bases that bring a livelihood to their regions.

Despite the high-profile win of Ellsworth, for Rhoads the victory of Fort Knox, Ky., is much sweeter. “Fort Knox is the unsung, big, big, big BRAC [base realignment and closure] victory,” said Rhoads, who worked with GOP Kentucky Sens. Mitch McConnell and Jim Bunning, as well as Rep. Ron Lewis (R-Ky.), to secure the triumph.

“The Defense Department was trying to send a message, and I think they wanted to close a big base, and Fort Knox was always on DoD’s chopping block,” Rhoads said.

The Army kept Fort Knox off the BRAC list, and Rhoads’s team, together with the congressional delegation, worked to bring about $250 million in annual salaries from other bases to the region.

And Rhoads is personally vested in Fort Knox, because in many ways that is where his career started.

Rhoads, who turns 50 today, is the only member of his family to go to college, where he joined the Army ROTC at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. After completing law school at the University of Pittsburgh, Rhoads was commissioned at Fort Knox for four years.

That is where in 1981 a Reserve judge at the Justice Department saw Rhoads try a case in front of him and lured him to work at the department in Washington, D.C.

“I did not have the ties to get into the Justice Department and probably did not have the grades to get into the Justice Department, but he liked me,” Rhoads said.

As the Rhoadses’ second son was coming along in 1987, the salary at the Justice Department was not enough, and Rhoads joined a construction-litigation firm in Tysons Corner, Va.

And in 1991, the construction-litigation lawyer, still an Army Reserve officer, was thrown into the middle of Desert Storm. “I am a lawyer. They do not activate lawyers,” he said. “Well, they activated us first because they needed people to do contracting and all that stuff.”

But Rhoads ended up doing much more than that. He was part of a team charged to investigate Saddam Hussein’s war crimes against U.S. prisoners of war in Desert Storm.

Such an assignment would hardly herald Rhoads’ s next career move: the deputy general counsel for the 1991 BRAC Commission, a post he received at the recommendation of a friend from Desert Storm.

But that was the moment that defined the rest of Rhoads’s career. In 1993 he started taking on communities to save from the Pentagon’s chopping block, gradually adding more and more.

It all started with New Jersey and working with Rep. Jim Saxton (R), who was trying to save McGuire Air Force Base.

“I had never met a congressman before then,” said Rhoads, slightly blushing. He jokingly added that his colleagues always chastise him for saying that he has never worked on the Hill.

But he did not have to, because the Hill came to him for his expertise and strategy.

“I have lobbied him for more information and trying to understand the BRAC process than he tried to lobby me,” said Marc Lubin, the chief of staff for Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-Texas). “He knows more about BRAC than anyone else.”

Even though Rhoads did not work on Capitol Hill, “he is a very down-to-earth, common-sense guy who has a deep understanding of both issues and process,” Lubin added.

In fact, Rhoads’s practice grew so much that he joined Boland & Madigan in 1997 and in 2001 Gerald Cassidy offered him the opportunity to run his own firm.

For Rhoads and his BRAC team led by Steven McKnight, the work with the communities never ends after a closure round is concluded. Also a victory is never a victory unless it is carried to the end, and a loss can always be turned into a victory.

“We are making sure that the [Defense Department] is implementing [the recommendations] the way that they are supposed to,” said Rhoads. “There is always that concern, because there is not going to be enough money to implement all the recommendations.”

For the losers in BRAC, Rhoads makes sure that the Department of Defense (DoD) draws out the closure process as long as possible. That is the case for Fort Monmouth, N.J., which did not escape the axe this year. “The BRAC Commission’s recommendation does not simply say, ‘Close Fort Monmouth and move.’ They saw that the fort is doing stuff to affect the war on terror … and DoD has to protect intellectual capacity” as that capacity moves to Aberdeen, Md., said Rhoads. “We are working to make sure we keep DoD’s feet to the fire,” he added.

For Mississippi’s Pascagoula Naval Station, another loser in BRAC, the Rhoads Group is working with the community to ensure that the station can become a site for Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers, for the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina.

Because Rhoads and his team have gotten to know the military bases so well, they have learned their needs and have been able to influence the appropriations process to fill those needs.

Rhoads says one of the most important hires he made when he started the firm was James Lofton, who for 28 years was a senior staff member for Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) and who worked on the appropriations committee.

In 2001, the Rhoads Group linked Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), the second largest employer in Pennsylvania, by working with Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), ranking member on the House Defense Appropriations committee, to establish the telepathology program for the surgeon general of the Air Force. UPMC has received $30 million to 40 million worth of research and development money in the past four years, Rhoads said.

“We represent a lot of companies on the defense bill, but we do more high-tech representation” he said. “We are using the defense bill in different ways than other lobbyists might be using it. We are innovative in coming up with programs that make sense.”

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