Campaign Issues

K St. connections dog Va. hopeful

Greg Nash

Virginia Del. Barbara Comstock’s (R) deep Washington ties have helped fuel her congressional campaign so far. But her lobbying career might cause her some headaches in the general election.

Comstock, a longtime GOP power player in both Washington, D.C., and Virginia, lobbied for Koch Industries on crime and environmental issues in 2004, according to lobbyist disclosure forms, and was registered as a lobbyist for Carnival Cruise Lines in 2005 and 2006, when the company won contracts to help with recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina that later drew bipartisan criticism.

{mosads}Her company, Corallo Comstock, also provided crisis management consulting to Blackwater Security Consulting, the controversial private contractor that drew headlines for its work in Iraq. Comstock’s former partner says, however, that she was only tangentially involved in helping with that client.

Comstock is running in a competitive Northern Virginia district to succeed her former boss, retiring Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.). The open seat race against Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust (D) is a top target for both parties in the pricey D.C. media market. 

Comstock has leveraged her close ties to big-name Republicans and has fundraisers on the calendar with both 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) in the coming weeks.

She’s raised $1.2 million since entering the race at the beginning of 2014, but after spending to win her primary had less than $600,000 in the bank at the end of June. Foust has raised $1.1 million since jumping in the race, including a $400,000 self-loan, and has $1.1 million cash on hand. 

But some of Comstock’s past work helping clients secure hundreds of millions in government contracts is precisely what Democrats plan to target on the campaign trail.

In 2005, Carnival Cruise Lines secured a $236 million contract to house more than 7,000 people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, a sum that drew bipartisan criticism in the fallout from the storm, especially after the company ended up housing far fewer people than expected at a higher cost than most other accommodations. The contract was held up as one of the top examples touted by critics of how the government fumbled the Katrina response. 

Democrats held hearings on that controversy and others at the time, criticizing both the cost of the contract and how the company had gotten it without a full competitive bidding process.

Then-House Government Reform Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) had the company testify as part of a series of hearings on contracts he viewed as questionable in 2005.

Then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) put out a joint statement at the time criticizing the process by which Carnival had received the deal, accusing the company of gouging the government and of crony capitalism.

“When the federal government would actually save millions of dollars by forgoing the status quo and actually sending evacuees on a luxurious six-month cruise it is time to rethink how we are conducting oversight. A short-term temporary solution has turned into a long-term, grossly overpriced sweetheart deal for a cruise line,” the bipartisan duo said in the 2005 statement.

Carnival employed Blank Rome Government Relations on the contract, where Comstock worked at the time. She was one of nine lobbyists listed in 2005 and 2006 as having worked for the client on the contract.

Comstock’s campaign says she “spent a small, limited amount of time on the matter” with Carnival, and that former Blank Rome co-chairman Mike Dyer was the company’s lead lobbyist on the case.

A Blank Rome spokeswoman corroborated that Comstock wasn’t the lead lobbyist on the Carnival account.

“Barbara, at the time, worked in a very limited capacity in preparation for the hearings.  Ms. Comstock’s work with Carnival was limited solely to the hearing before Chairman Waxman’s committee. She did not lead the matter,” said a Comstock spokeswoman. “Barbara never provided any legal advice in connection with any government contracts, nor was she ever employed directly by Carnival.”

Comstock’s campaign defended her lobbying work, pointing out that it has come up in past successful state campaigns. 

“Barbara is known as a proven problem-solver because she is effective at advocating for both her clients and her constituents. Whether it’s advocating for foster care services through the Casey Family Foundation or passing key jobs legislation for the tech industry, or competitive bidding legislation that has already saved taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, Barbara has been a leader who delivers results that improve the lives of those she represents,” Comstock spokeswoman Johanna Persing said.

Comstock also was a lobbyist for Koch Industries, the corporation owned by conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch. The two have spent millions of dollars attacking Democrats in recent election cycles and become liberals’ favorite bogeymen.

It’s unclear from lobbying forms alone what work she did for the company, but the Koch ties are another potent attack for Democrats.  

Comstock’s allies point out that Foust has received campaign donations from lobbyists as well. Plus, in the wealthy suburban D.C. district where many government contractors are also voters, lobbying isn’t as foreign or toxic as it is elsewhere. 

Her consulting firm also helped Blackwater with crisis communications as it faced questions about repeated controversies stemming from its security work in Iraq. But Mark Corallo, Comstock’s partner, told The Hill that Blackwater had been his client since before they merged firms, and she’d done almost no work for them.

“She came in with clients of her own, and I had pre-existing clients, of which Blackwater was one, and we kept those separate,” he said. “I asked Barbara to attend two meetings as someone who understood congressional hearings, and that was it. She never participated; she never made any money from that account. She never worked on Blackwater.”

Tags Barack Obama Frank Wolf Paul Ryan Tom Coburn

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