“Some of the opposition research involves finding out what else a congressman could become busy with or could be troubled with ... and then we would exacerbate something else that’s already in play,” he said. “We did that.”
He noted that members and their aides have limited time and resources, so diverting an opponent’s attention to another matter could get him or her off their back.
When Abramoff’s team was up against the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians in Louisiana on a gaming matter, his staff worked to uncover the tribe’s vulnerabilities. Often, much of what turns up from oppo research can’t even be used, but Abramoff said whenever he took on a project, he wanted to learn everything he could about the opposition “so we know where we can hit them.”
“With a client where both are trying to present themselves as pure as the driven snow,” he said, “then bringing out the dirt, well, it’s part of the whole game. It’s all nuances and shades and little teeny things that tip the scale.”
Abramoff, of course, had no monopoly on the practice.
In the current fight over an immigration law overhaul, three organizations opposed to giving citizenship to undocumented immigrants said they have been the target of a smear campaign that seeks to discredit their conservative credentials, providing GOP lawmakers an excuse to back an overhaul of immigration laws.
“Here we are in the middle of a heated, contentious immigration reform battle, and there’s no rules of engagement,” said Bob Dane, spokesman for one of the groups, Federation for American Immigration Reform. “It’s one trick tactic after another ... accusing FAIR of being a liberal group masquerading as a conservative group.”
Still, most lobbyists say they don’t use oppo research and contend that it contributes to dysfunction in Washington, D.C.
Mark Irion, a longtime lobbyist who recently joined the firm Levick as its president, said covert research doesn’t fit with his goal of coalition building, bringing sides together to arrive at good public policy. Instead, such tactics result in a burned-down village, and “the village in ashes here is gridlock,” he said.
Irion concedes, though, that the tactics can be effective.
“It’s not that opposition research doesn’t work, but if you’re in the business of communicating trust, building authentic conversations that result in good policy outcomes, then you don’t even really consider that as a tool,” he said.
Even one lobbyist who said privately that he has used oppo research in numerous client matters admitted it can be nasty business that breeds distrust and contributes to stalemate on Capitol Hill.
“We all have blood on our hands for making it worse,” this lobbyist said.
Hancock and others in his line of work are betting that the K Street market for oppo research will only grow.
“When you get a high-profile, high-impact public policy question, you’re going to see that actors are going to deploy every asset they can,” Hancock said. “I really believe our firm has professionalized this service on the political side, and there are numerous applications on the corporate side that we’re exploring.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., walks on Broadway after a Future Forum with young entrepreneurs in the Flatiron District of New York City, April 16, 2015. Reps. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Grace Meng, D-N.Y., also attended.