Lobby bids offer peek behind K Street's curtain

The lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay, competing to represent Pinellas County’s interests in Washington, had what might have seemed like an inside track. The firm, in a written bid for the proposed contract, noted that former congressman turned lobbyist Skip Bafalis (R) was “highly regarded” by Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). Young was a good person by whom to be so considered. At the time, he chaired the House Appropriations Committee, and his 10th district is entirely contained within Pinellas’s borders.

The lobbying firm Alcalde & Fay, competing to represent Pinellas County’s interests in Washington, had what might have seemed like an inside track.

The firm, in a written bid for the proposed contract, noted that former congressman turned lobbyist Skip Bafalis (R) was “highly regarded” by Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.). Young was a good person by whom to be so considered. At the time, he chaired the House Appropriations Committee, and his 10th district is entirely contained within Pinellas’s borders.

Tew Cardenas had its own connections to offer in a competition to represent nearby Orange County. Al Cardenas, a top GOP fundraiser and former head of the Florida Republican Party, has a “direct” relationship with Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) and a “personal” one with Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), the firm reported.

More firms than ever are competing to represent the interests of cities, counties and states in Washington. In the process, they are making the private business of lobbying a little more public.

In written bids, available through open-records laws, some firms try to get a leg up on the competition by listing their friends on Capitol Hill, key legislative victories they’ve won, strategies that set them apart or even the central location of their offices.

Some local governments require firms to list how much lobbyists charge per hour, or the number of minorities in top positions.

Alcalde and Fay’s bid provided 23 pages of “previous client successes,” including a few earmarks it got for Clearwater, Fla., in Pinellas. Tew Cardenas’s 20-plus-page proposal included a civics lesson on the pace of the appropriations process.

Both firms ended up losing to rival bidders. Combined, the two solicitations generated 22 responses.

“More and more law firms and consulting firms are realizing that working with states, cities and municipalities is a growing business,” said Craig Pattee of Dutko Worldwide, which represents North Dakota, New Orleans and Los Angeles County.

A MUNICIPAL BOOM

Once largely ignored by K Street, cities, counties and states are now contributing to a boom in the advocacy business.

A Center for Public Integrity study released this month found that 1,400 local governments spent $357 million in taxpayer money on lobbying between 1998 and 2004. Local government spending on lobbying has more than doubled in those six years, keeping pace with the overall rise in lobbying spending. In 2003, cities and counties spent $73 million in Washington, an increase of 110 percent from 1998 levels.

State government spending on advocates increased at almost the same clip. In 2004, states spent just under $10 million, a rise of 87 percent over the 1998 level.

Some large cities and municipalities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on Washington representation.

The general consensus seems to be that it’s money well spent, based on interviews with local officials and congressional observers.

“I like to say that my department makes money for the city of San Diego,” said Andrew Poat, who runs the city’s in-house government-relations shop and directed a recent search for a D.C. lobbying firm. The city selected Patton Boggs.

But some lament the fact that taxpayer dollars pay for private representation.

Keith Ashdown, vice president for policy at Taxpayers for Common Sense, a federal budget watchdog group, said local and state officials who don’t hire lobbyists risk losing out on appropriations.

“The system can work well if you have a lobbyist, but it really is the best democracy money can buy,” he said.

Local government officials say lobbyists operate as extensions of their congressional delegation’s staffs, which otherwise are overburdened with a flood of requests. The lobbyists fill out time-consuming appropriations earmark requests and identify areas in the federal agency budgets where transportation, economic development, homeland security or healthcare dollars can be found.

“States and local governments have felt a real budget crunch that has created a great demand for other sources of funding,” said Edward Newberry of Patton Boggs.

A NEW PIPELINE

A request for proposals from a local government can read like a Christmas wish list.
In 2003, the city and county of Denver sought a firm that had “strong expertise” in no fewer than 13 areas, including homeland security, transportation, community development, housing and homelessness, water resources, Head Start and work-force development.

The state of Iowa, as represented by the governor’s office, had 15 specific areas it wanted its lobbyist to address.

As the Pinellas County and Iowa examples show, even areas represented by powerful members of Congress have sought out lobbying firms, a fact not always welcomed by the members themselves.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) watches out for the Hawkeye State from his perch as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

Last Congress, that included securing $50 million to help build an indoor rain forest in Iowa.

“No one from the state of Iowa needs a lobbyist to get [Sen. Grassley’s] ear,” a spokeswoman for the senator said.

Grassley “knows what he is doing,” acknowledged John Cacciatore, the director of Iowa’s Washington office. But Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat, wanted to be more aggressive in “the pursuit of public funds,” Cacciatore said.

Young directed nine earmarks worth a total of $12 million to Pinellas County in 2004, his last year as appropriations chairman, according to information provided by Taxpayers for Common Sense. That figure does not include money specifically earmarked to cities, such as Clearwater, within the county.

County officials wanted to open another pipeline to Washington as Young’s tenure ended, in part to help with an airport-noise issue and to pay for shortfalls in a healthcare program, said Elithia Stanfield, a deputy county administrator who directed the search.

Stanfield said that county officials sought Young’s input but that he demurred.

“He said, ‘I’m your lobbyist,’” recalls Stanfield. “We love him to death, but we also wanted new ways to get through the agencies.”

A spokesman for Young confirmed that the congressman and Bafalis are good friends but said Young felt that it was inappropriate to advise the county on the contract.

The competition among the four top finishers came down to their oral presentations more than their contacts.

“We asked, ‘What have you learned about Pinellas County?’ That question was huge,’” Stanfield said.

Patton Boggs’s team had what was considered the best answer and won the $156,000 annual contract.

“They knew stuff that I had to go back and check whether it was right, like how many parks we had,” Stanfield said.

‘BEST FOOT FORWARD’

Oral presentations often make the difference because they enable local officials to see how well lobbyists think on their feet and how effectively they can make a pitch, local officials say.

But firms make their first impressions in written bids. Pattee of Dutko said the bids are attempts by firms to “put their best foot forward.” As such, Pattee said, he, like reporters, avails himself of public-records laws.

“It would be silly not to learn from other people’s presentations,” he said.

Seemingly, no argument is left unmade. In its bid to represent the New Orleans Transit Authority, the C2 Group included 23 pages of reasons why it should win, focusing mostly on its experience and Capitol Hill contacts. But C2 lobbyists also promised access to themselves. Each lobbyist “maintains voicemail, cell phone, email and Blackberry access 24/7,” the firm said.

Patton Boggs, trying to keep its contract with Jacksonville, Fla., noted that journalist Carl Bernstein called firm founder Thomas Hale Boggs “a terrific guy” in a Vanity Fair article.

Van Scoyoc Associates, hoping to take the contract from Patton Boggs, described various ways it would try to get money for Jacksonville in its 23-page bid.

One less weighty selling point: Van Scoyoc’s office is “just steps away from the U.S. Capitol Building,” providing clients “convenient easy access” to the Senate and House.

One notable difference in submissions is in how firms describe their contacts on Capitol Hill.

In addition to relationships with Allen and Mica, Tew Cardenas cited “close” ties to House Republican leaders, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay (Texas). The firm also provided a list of 15 ways the firm intended to help the county.

While some lobbyists are explicit in mentioning lawmakers they know, others limit references to their own biographies and their time spent on the Hill.

“We’re more comfortable with that than the Washington name game,” said Bill Ferguson, CEO of the Ferguson Group, who admittedly doesn’t attend “Georgetown cocktail parties.”

Orange County bids were submitted nine months after DeLay, in an effort to distance himself from embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, told lobbyists who, to get clients or money, were “trading in on” his name to stop immediately.

A DeLay spokesman said he couldn’t comment on whether brief references in bids like Tew Cardenas’s apply, not having read any of the bids. DeLay votes on “principle,” he said.

Elizabeth Gianini, the chief of staff to Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty, said it was important to county officials that the firms knew the right people.

“We don’t live it everyday,” said Gianini, a former deputy chief of staff to Robert Zoellick when he was United States trade representative. “I know our delegation, but I don’t know the rest.”

But the firm’s contacts are rarely determinative, she and others said.

In its Orange County bid, Dutko Worldwide stressed an integrated-services approach that includes a polling service and a state-government practice run in part by two ex-governors. Fleishman-Hillard offered to strengthen the county’s “good will” with the Florida delegation through “sponsorship of events, participation in activities of the Florida State Society” and its bipartisan political action committee.

Eventual winner PodestaMattoon, which cited the “warm relations” it has with top administration officials, impressed the Orange County select committee more with its writing skill, Gianini said.

That was important because the county is constantly writing letters to its delegation.

“It’s good to know that someone is there to help us,” Gianini said.

PodestaMattoon has already helped in an ongoing battle that the county has had with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over hurricane relief money, Gianini said.

“They are doing an awesome job for us,” Gianini said.

TRADE SECRETS

Working for local and state governments can raise unique challenges rarely presented by their corporate clients, lobbyists said.

For example, firms are often asked to provide what may be sensitive details. Denver officials wanted to know how much the firm’s lobbyists charge. Patton Boggs reported that Rodney Slater — who served as Transportation Department secretary during the Clinton administration — made $525 an hour but would work on the contract “as needed.” Republican lawyer/lobbyist Ben Ginsberg charged $500 an hour.

Some cities also want a breakout of firm employees by race and sex. A review of the top seven bidders in Orange County found that the overwhelming majority of managers and professionals were white.

Of the 1,171 senior-level employees, 89 percent were white; only 11 percent were African-American, Hispanic, American Indian or Asian-American. The numbers are high because of Fleishman-Hillard’s large size.

Another difference is that a company’s legislative priorities are often easier to define than a local government’s.

Elected officials sometimes want different things and deciding which project to pursue can get tricky, according to Paul Sweet of Fleishman-Hillard, whose clients include the five-member San Joaquin, Calif., county board.

“As long as you have three [of the five] members, you are all right,” Sweet said.

Perhaps the biggest complication: a change in administration can lead to a change in lobbyist.

After being elected mayor of Houston in 2003, Bill White decided to evaluate the city’s contract with Patton Boggs, which had represented Houston for almost seven years.

“It was a new administration, and we wanted to look at everything anew,” said Ann Travis, who runs Houston’s government-affairs office. The city chose Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.