By Josephine Hearn - 03/23/05 12:00 AM EST
Alex Thomason, one of nine remaining contestants on the hit reality-TV show “The Apprentice,” is billed as a wholesome farm boy who grew up to wield influence in Washington’s corridors of power and then got a shot at television stardom.
“Alex … grew up on an apple farm and went on to become a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.,” intoned the show’s star Donald Trump in the opening moments of last Thursday’s episode.
Yet Thomason, 29, was never registered as a lobbyist, nor was the group he worked for, the U.S. Apple Association (USApple), ever registered as a lobbying entity, according to public disclosure reports.
A spokesman for USApple said that its mission is primarily “educational and informational,” although federal law allows groups to engage in limited lobbying without being registered.
Thomason worked there for three months in 2001 as an intern, the group said.
Contacted by The Hill, Thomason acknowledged that he had never registered as a lobbyist. He said he had made it clear to producers at “The Apprentice” that they should not use the term lobbyist, although he said he did lobby on behalf of the industry.
“I began as an office assistant — literally opening mail and making coffee — but eventually, ultimately, I took over a dead-in-the-water program: convincing the [U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)] to include perishable commodities (apples) in its humanitarian food aid programs,” he said via e-mail. “My project was successful. … I also met with the Senate Agriculture Subcommittee and recommended text for the Food Aid portion of the 2001 farm bill.”
The official “Apprentice” website similarly touts the apple purchase. “In 2000, Alex moved to D.C. and lobbied for the apple industry and successfully oversaw the entire bidding and shipping logistics for the USDA’s first-ever purchase of fresh apples for inclusion in humanitarian food aid programs.”
However, Thomason’s former boss at the group, Kraig Naasz, when asked if Thomason had lobbied, hedged: “He worked for an organization that at times lobbied on behalf of the apple industry. He wouldn’t be the first young person to arrive and find cause to embellish in D.C. Alex assisted us with [the USDA apple purchase], and it ended up coming through in the fall.” Naasz is now with the Fertilizer Institute.
USApple records show Thomason worked there from March 1 to June 1, 2001.
An apple-industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted that USApple newsletters from that period mentioned Naasz and another employee as contact people on the apple purchase. “This was a big deal. I’d be surprised if an intern was the chief point of contact,” the insider said.
Paul Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), noted that interns rarely take on lobbying duties. “Most of us don’t let our interns go out there and do lobbying. It’s more starting at the bottom and working yourself up,” he said.
Miller also noted that ALL believes anyone doing lobbying should be registered. “If you call yourself a lobbyist, then obviously you need to be a registered lobbyist and follow those rules and regulations,” he said.
NBC spokesman Jim Dowd defended the show’s references to Thomason’s lobbying. “This sounds like the internship grew into actual project management,” he said after querying Thomason on the matter. “Even if we did say ‘lobbyist’ in a voiceover, it wasn’t meant that he was registered. I think this is a matter of semantics.”
Dowd noted that the show usually calls Thomason a lawyer, a reference to his current job as a deputy assistant prosecutor in King County, Wash. “He is listed as a ‘lawyer’ on the show, so we never reference this [lobbying] as his primary business experience.”
Naasz said that Thomason had gotten the job through his father, Richard, a Washington state apple grower and chairman of Washington State Apple Commission.
Naasz recalled being impressed by Thomason.
“Alex is a delightful young man … conscientious, enthusiastic, energetic, very easy to get along with, very well-liked by other members of our team,” Naasz said. “Based on the episode or two I’ve seen, I’d say he is at least as good or the best Mr. Trump has to choose from.”