Even John Q. Public can hire K Street — if he has the cash

K Street’s power brokers make millions each year promoting the agendas of America’s leading special interests, like Big Business, Big Oil and Big Pharma.

But some firms maintain a surprising sideline: Big John Q. Public.

From time to time, individual members of the public call on lobbying firms to help them get through to lawmakers. A review of lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate and the Justice Department reveals that Washington’s top lobbyists occasionally work for individuals who need assistance with their causes.

These clients’ goals range from the mundane (a fix to a problem with Social Security checks) to the lucrative (government blessing of a real estate development) to the bizarre (help securing farmland in Africa).

Lobbying disclosure records suggest that most of these individuals hire lobbyists to represent their personal business interests.

“It has at least to be someone who can afford representation in Washington,” said Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden Arps who specializes in lobbying and ethics law. “Some of these people may be looking for private bills, where Congress passes legislation for a private person.”

The lobbying contract often stems from a firm’s representation of a client in a legal matter. “That’s frequently how these cases transfer over,” said Rich Gold, a partner at Holland & Knight. In these instances, a client may turn to lobbyists after “they have an experience with an executive agency where they don’t get anywhere.”

Gold estimated that lobbying for individuals makes up only a tiny share of his firm’s business. “It’s very uncommon for us to do legislative work for an individual,” Gold said.

But in one case, Kansas businessman Laurence Jones Jr. gave the firm close to $100,000 over three years for its help in getting Congress to exempt land he owns on South Padre Island, Texas, from restrictions on federal development assistance.

Holland & Knight managed to get Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to introduce bills on Jones’s behalf. Unfortunately for Jones, his lobbyists never got any further.

“He just moved ahead,” Gold said, and the Vista Del Mar vacation resort is now operating on Jones’s land.

Jones could not be reached for comment.

Another wealthy businessman is close to securing government land, though. But this real estate is in Zimbabwe, and the case possesses elements of international intrigue.

Paul Le Roux hired Dickens and Madson, a Montreal-based political consulting and lobbying firm, to help secure a 99-year lease on farmland in the African nation.

Le Roux is a wealthy businessman who was born in the nation when it was called Rhodesia. He now holds Australian and South African citizenship but says he wants “to set down roots” in Zimbabwe. He is paying Dickens and Madson $1.2 million for its services.

The entrepreneur could be one of the first white men to work the land again after white farmers were forced off their property by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s controversial land distribution campaign.

Beyond securing the farmland, Le Roux’s ambitions are much broader. “We want recognition that injustice was done in the past and that the land reform program corrects that,” Le Roux said.

Le Roux’s lobbyist, Ari Ben-Menashe, said he plans to contact members of Congress and possibly the White House for the effort. Ben-Menashe, a former Israeli intelligence agent with personal ties to Mugabe and other Zimbabwean politicians, has lobbied for the country’s government in the past.

Sometimes, these cases make the front page. Cromwell & Moring lobbyist Karen Hastie Williams played a small role in a major international incident when she took on the case of former Associated Press journalist Terry Anderson, who had been held hostage in Lebanon by the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia from 1985 to 1991.

Cromwell & Moring’s litigators helped Anderson and other former hostages win hundreds of millions of dollars in court from Iran. But Anderson needed a lobbyist to pressure the U.S. Treasury Department to release frozen Iranian funds to cover his $341 million settlement. He paid less than $20,000 for the lobbying contract.

“Treasury essentially stonewalled us,” Williams said. “We realized that in order to get these judgments, we would have to go to the Hill.” The firm’s lobbying helped attract the assistance of Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and then-Sen. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), and Anderson got his money in 2002, Williams said.

Beyond real estate and international affairs, lobbyists also help individuals with much more personal causes, such as resolving immigration issues.

For example, Tew Cardenas inked a contract potentially worth up to $100,000 to advise a well-to-do Honduran businessman, Emin Abufele, on his father’s immigration application.

In other cases, the problems are homegrown. Attorney Robert Brassell Jr. specializes in helping clients fix problems with their Social Security benefits through his home-based firm, Process Handler et al. for Hire, on Long Island in New York.
In one recent case, Brassell said, he worked over the past two years helping Ronald Brown Sr. get several years’ worth of unpaid Social Security benefits.

“He went to his congressman and didn’t get help,” said Brassell, who charges his clients for legal services but not lobbying.

According to Brassell’s lobbying disclosure filing, Brown lives in Central Islip, N.Y., which is represented by Rep. Steve Israel (D). Brown could not be reached.

“I stepped in. I had to get quite brutal,” Brassell said.

In Brown’s case, Brassell’s lobbying contacts were restricted to written correspondence, but he left no stone unturned.
Brassell sent numerous letters, reaching to the highest levels of government, including presidential adviser Karl Rove and then-White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card.

And in contrast to many other such cases, Brown’s story has a happy ending: He got his checks.