On April 1, 2008, Rep. Phil Gingrey paid Mitchell Hunter, his former chief of staff, $6,000 for campaign consulting fees. That payment came one day after the Georgia Republican signed a letter to the Appropriations Committee requesting an earmark for the National Center for State Courts, which had recently hired Hunter as a lobbyist.
The center got its earmark that year — $100,000 to help state courts implement federal rules — and paid Hunter $100,000 for lobbying services. Gingrey paid Hunter $28,650 for “campaign strategy” and “fundraising consulting” in 2008, according to Federal Election Commission records maintained by CQ MoneyLine. Gingrey has paid Hunter’s firm another $54,090 since then.
Hunter said there is absolutely no connection between his work for Gingrey’s campaign and his lobbying services. Both Hunter and Gingrey’s office said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) was the lead sponsor of the 2008 earmark for the court center, which is in his district. Gingrey’s office said the Congressman has long been a supporter of state court professional development and that court officials from Georgia and around the country had supported the project for the state court center. For fiscal 2010, the center received a second earmark for $500,000 with the support of nearly two dozen House Members and Senators; Gingrey was not among them.
Nevertheless, Congressional watchdogs say it is highly unusual for a lobbyist seeking earmarks for a client to also serve as a paid fundraiser or campaign consultant to a Member who is supporting those earmarks. The arrangement would seem to make it difficult to keep the Member’s official duties separate from the activities of the campaign, they said.
The Center for State Courts offers administrative support for more than a dozen other court associations, such as the Conference of State Court Administrators, the American Judges Association and the National Association for Court Management.
In 2007, Gingrey obtained a $188,000 earmark for the court management association.
Gingrey spokeswoman Meredith Griffanti said the Congressman “has had a long-standing relationship with the court management group ... one of his constituents was the director of it.”
Griffanti said Gingrey’s predecessor, former Rep. Bob Barr (R), supported the association for years. “We have been doing appropriations requests for them dating back to 2003,” she said.
The constituent who was Gingrey’s connection to the court managers was Skip Chesshire.
For more than 20 years, Chesshire was an administrator for the Cobb County Superior Court, and he became president of the National Association for Court Management in 2006. He also served as NACM’s member on the board of the Center for State Courts.
Lorri Montgomery, communications director for the center, said that by the end of 2007, “we had been contracting with a large group” — their lobbying firm was Russ Reid Co. — but “with them we were just one of a number and we wanted to go with a smaller firm where we would be an important client.”
Montgomery said Chesshire recommended Hunter, and “we interviewed several people and hired Mitch in January 2008.”
Montgomery pointed out that the center’s directors made sure that Hunter’s one-year lobbying ban had expired when they contracted for his lobbying services. According to Hunter’s filings with the House, he terminated his employment with Gingrey on Jan. 2, 2007, and registered to lobby for the state courts effective Jan. 2, 2008.
Montgomery said she was unaware that the Center for State Courts was Hunter’s only lobbying client when they signed up, and Hunter did not sign another client until earlier this year, when he registered to lobby for Mercer University. Hunter filed paperwork with the Georgia Secretary of State on Jan. 15, 2008, to register his company, MH Strategies, which is also the name of the firm that Gingrey is paying for consulting services. No other federal campaign has paid MH Strategies, according to FEC records.
Shortly after Hunter was hired by the state courts association, Chesshire retired in the wake of allegations of sexual improprieties. In August 2008, a special investigator hired by the county issued a report alleging that Chesshire engaged in sexual activity with young employees, including having sex with an intern in a judge’s chambers, according to news reports. Chesshire was never charged with wrongdoing, and his attorney, Diane Woods, said he was not fired and did not resign. “He was up for retirement anyway,” Woods said. Chesshire “totally denied everything, and nothing ever came of it.”
Hunter said he was not involved at all in Gingrey’s 2007 earmark request for the court managers association. “That is a long-standing earmark that had gone back several years,” he said.
Hunter left Gingrey’s office in January of that year and had gone to work in finance. He was not involved with Gingrey again until early 2008, when he resumed consulting for the campaign, Hunter said. Hunter said he is a strategic consultant, not a fundraising consultant for Gingrey.
When he signed on to lobby for the state court center, “they had the need for someone who is going to put a lot of time into building relationships with them on the Hill ... to help the Congress become aware of how they serve the public,” Hunter said. “It was something that I put countless hours into.” The 2008 earmark “was a national effort,” Hunter said, with support of several state chief justices and U.S. Senators as well.
Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said Hunter’s arrangement with Gingrey is unusual. “Plenty of lobbyists hold fundraisers for Members, but they are not the official fundraiser for the campaign,” he said.
Sunlight Foundation director Bill Allison said the arrangement “makes it awfully hard to maintain a Chinese wall” between campaign operations and earmarks.