To Michael Jordan, he's the nanny

He went to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar and then got a law degree from Harvard. He has helped build one of the fastest-growing government-affairs shops in town, from which he is deeply involved in a $140 billion issue, asbestos-litigation reform.

But to basketball great Michael Jordan, Elliott Portnoy is simply “The Nanny.”
Patrick G. Ryan

Elliott Portnoy: Asbestos reform is “the most intensive legislative initiative I have been involved with.”

That’s the nickname the six-time NBA champion hung on Portnoy, who directs the lobbying practice at Chicago-based Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

Portnoy knows His Airness through Portnoy’s wife, Estee, who helps Jordan with his business interests. The nickname is good-natured ribbing.

“My wife travels with him fairly extensively, and because I am often not there … when he sees me he always says, ‘Oh, hey, look, the nanny’s here,’ because the assumption is I’m the guy taking care of the kids while my wife is away,” says Portnoy, who left Arent Fox in 2002 after 10 years to join Sonnenschein.

Considering his wife’s client, whom she first met working for the agent David Falk, it’s no surprise to see a signed basketball atop the shelf in Portnoy’s office (which is, by the way, actually on K Street).

But the ball has nothing to do with Jordan, or the Chicago Bulls, or even the Washington Wizards, the last team Jordan played on. The autographs are from the inaugural participants of Kids Enjoy Exercise Now Foundation, or KEEN, a nonprofit group that helps children and younger adults with severe and profound mental and physical disabilities participate in sports.

Portnoy, 39, received the 2004 Abe Pollin Humanitarian Award, named for owner of the Wizards, for his work with the group. He’s also been named Washingtonian of the year by Washingtonian magazine for his community-service efforts.

Sonnenschein and Portnoy are also in the process of setting up KEEN groups in the firm’s eight other offices, including in Chicago, Kansas City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There are now eight chapters in the D.C. metro area.

Professionally, Portnoy spends his days working on one of the most heavily lobbied, and intractable, issues on Capitol Hill. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) may introduce a new asbestos-litigation reform bill this week.

A discussion of the draft Specter has already released would provide a $140 billion trust fund to be paid to workers stricken with respiratory and other ailments from working with asbestos. In exchange, companies would be protected from lawsuits that have driven many into bankruptcy.

Sonnenschein’s asbestos clients — unsecured creditors for Federal-Mogul, an auto parts supplier, and United Airlines — are its two largest. The Unsecured Creditors of UAL paid Sonnenschein $580,000 last year. In the first six months of 2004, the Committee of Unsecured Creditors of Federal-Mogul paid the firm $660,000 (Sonnenschein’s year-end report for Federal-Mogul has not yet been posted).

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“Unless or until there is a serious dialogue on the allocations, there is going to be strong opposition from a major portion of the business community because it is the allocations at the end of the day that affect the individual companies,” Portnoy says.

Federal-Mogul would be the biggest contributor to the trust fund under the Specter draft.

Portnoy calls asbestos reform “without doubt the most intensive legislative initiative that I have been involved with.”

Colleagues say that Portnoy’s legal and political experience set him apart.

Roger Levy of DLA Piper Rudnick, who also lobbies on asbestos reform, says of Portnoy: “He has that rare ability among attorneys in town to both have the technical and legal capability combined with political astuteness.

“He is very canny politically, and he knows the Hill very well.”

Portnoy enrolled as an undergraduate at Syracuse and graduated in three years. While a student, he came to Washington as an intern to the Senate Democratic Policy Committee, then chaired by Sen. Robert Byrd, the Democratic icon from Portnoy’s home state of West Virginia.
“I learned about the guts of the legislative process,” Portnoy says of his work for the committee.

“At that time I knew what I wanted, which was to try to continue to develop the skills that essentially led to my practice today, the intersection of politics, public policy, law and business.”

Portnoy — who sleeps no more than five hours a night — continued to work for the committee on the accuracy of special-interest scorecards while at Oxford, where he was also writing his dissertation on the political influence of small-state congressional delegations, focusing on West Virginia’s in 1952 and 1988.

One thing he learned on the Hill and in his studies was the importance of money. When Sonnenschein recruited Portnoy and seven others away from Arent Fox’s government-affairs practice, the team set up a political action committee to reward friends of the firm’s clients.

“It was a recognition on our part that we were joining a firm that had no profile in public-policy circles,” Portnoy says. “No one on Capitol Hill had heard of Sonnenschein. … We had to develop the brand.”

In the first year, the PAC gave out about $15,000. But after aggressively recruiting firm attorneys to contribute, Sonnenschein was the second-biggest giver to political campaigns during the 2004 campaign, coming a close second to DLA Piper Rudnick, according to Portnoy.

Portnoy says the firm, which contributes to both parties, gave close to a half-million dollars to candidates.

“There are few better ways to develop a brand than by being able to provide political and financial support to members of Congress who are supportive of client initiatives.”
The lobbying practice has grown along with the PAC. There are now 24 full-time professional employees at Sonnenschein.

The firm’s work with asbestos-litigation reform has also led to a subset of the lobbying practice, an arm it calls political intelligence. Hedge funds, wealthy investors and equity funds pay Portnoy’s shop not to lobby but to tip them off to what Congress plans to do, and then use the information to make money in the market.

The outcome of asbestos reform is “hugely important to Wall Street,” Portnoy says.

While he says his wife has “the fun job,” Portnoy quickly adds of his own: “I’ve got an incredible gig here. I am able to pursue policy initiatives that are interesting and meaningful and intellectually challenging.”