Google Inc.’s first K Street hire was a fledgling shop whose two lobbyists had been the subject of a mass email alleging they had an extramarital affair. That was nine years ago.
Today the company, which is facing intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill and a Federal Trade Commission investigation into anti-competitive practices, has 77 registered lobbyists, including former Members of Congress and some of the city’s priciest and most prestigious firms. And that number doesn’t even include the scores of influence, public relations and legal professionals who operate as something of a shadow army and whose work is not subject to lobbying disclosures.
“It’s like getting divorced,” one technology industry lobbyist said. “You call every divorce lawyer in town so your spouse can’t hire them.”
Mountain View, Calif.-based Google is hardly alone. Other big players, including Microsoft Corp., have snapped up K Street talent like an insurance policy.
But Google, because of its size, the scope of its business and the scrutiny around it, does it big. “They want to be able to say, ‘If we have a problem there, we already have X on our side,’” said Ivan Adler, a K Street headhunter with the McCormick Group. “It’s better to be able to do that rather than hope you can do it. These guys can afford to go beyond hope.”
Already this year, the company has paid its lobbying entourage more than $5 million — nearly three times what Microsoft has spent on federal lobbying and nearly eight times Facebook’s tab. More than one-fifth of that money has gone to 22 separate firms, whose quarterly retainers range from $10,000 to $90,000, according to federal filings.
The company also is a member of several trade associations including TechNet, Net Coalition, the Consumer Electronics Association and the newly created Application Developers Alliance.
A Google spokeswoman said there’s plenty of work to keep all those advocates busy. “No one sits on the sidelines,” she told Roll Call.
But the spokeswoman confirmed that Google has been unable to hire some firms because existing clients object to sharing Washington, D.C., representation with a competitor.
The spending is well worth it, with Google involved in new products such as high-tech glasses capable of doing tasks now handled by smartphones and driverless cars that get as much attention as the flagship search engine, said Pablo Chavez, the company’s chief lobbyist.
“Don’t underestimate the stakes. The issues Washington is tackling are important not just to our industry but to the future of the American economy,” he said. “We want to do whatever we can to help policymakers understand our business and the work we do to keep the Internet open, to encourage innovation and to create economic opportunity.”
Last summer, Google brought on 13 firms to help combat the fallout from the FTC probe, which is examining whether the company manipulates search results to favor its own services and engages in other anti-competitive behavior. This year, it hired former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.) to lead its in-house operation, highlighting a shift from a heavily Democratic team of wonkish lobbyists to seasoned politickers with connections to both parties.
But even in a town full of lobbyists, Google’s expansion and the rise of Facebook threatens to deplete the pool of available talent. Together, Microsoft, Google and Facebook have nearly 50 outside firms on contract, including a dozen of Washington’s top 25 shops.
Google manages its team through weekly Monday meetings, during which in-house lobbyists set priorities and update the outside representatives on new ventures. The consultants have personal handlers inside the company who are likely to give direct orders to calm Capitol Hill calls for privacy legislation or tamp down a flurry of activity stemming from a regulatory probe, according to tech lobbyists.
“It’s kind of a shock and awe campaign,” said the tech lobbyist. “If you’re a staffer on the Hill, you say, ‘Look at that budget; look at the size.’ Is there rhyme or reason? That’s TBD.”
It’s a far cry from Google’s first lobbyists, who generated buzz for a different reason. One weekend in October 2002, hundreds of Beltway power brokers received — from the computer of a young female lobbyist — an expletive-laden email signed by an enraged wife alleging her husband’s infidelity.
That husband, along with the accused mistress, went on to start a firm, Public Policy Partners. One of its first clients was Google.