If a lobbying campaign is war, then opposition research is the equivalent of elite special forces.
K Street deploys all sorts of quiet, behind-the-scenes tactics and troops to influence legislation and policy. The most clandestine and high-risk is the use of political-style operatives to dig up dirt on foes.
“Oppo” can discredit, distract and neutralize an opponent. That can be particularly dangerous when the target is a sitting member of Congress. Leave too many footprints, and the effort can boomerang.
Perhaps that’s why former Missouri state lawmaker John Hancock, president and CEO of the Strategy Group for Research, won’t discuss any of his K Street clients. He doesn’t have to because his type of work isn’t covered by lobbying disclosure laws. But the former lobbyist says it’s a growing part of his business.
“Digging in trash cans, we don’t do that,” Hancock said. “We’ve taken some of the principles on the research side that we have traditionally applied to political campaigns and made them available to the government relations industry.”
Hancock and his team, for example, approach a congressional hearing the way they would a candidate debate.
After doing as much background digging as possible ahead of time on members and witnesses involved, they’ll dispatch a researcher to conduct real-time fact-checking and then search for ways to discredit opponents. They look for inconsistencies from a witness’s previous statements.
“Are these people credible?” is a constant question Hancock’s team asks.
The oppo researchers then blast their findings to their K Street client’s lobbying or public relations team to get the message out instantly.
Lobbyists who have relied on opposition research say they have tried to discredit lawmakers with congressional financial disclosures when those documents reveal a personal investment in a company that stands to benefit from a particular legislative outcome. Lobbyists typically prefer to quietly share the information with a lawmaker from the other side of the aisle to keep their fingerprints off the story.
Oppo researchers — who often have backgrounds in politics, government and law enforcement that may include the FBI or even the intelligence community — will also scan court documents, public records, campaign finance and lobbying disclosures and reach out to their contacts on Capitol Hill, K Street and in local communities.
K Street intersects with the world of investigations for more mundane reasons, too.
Michael Herson of American Defense International said he has hired a private investigator to look into his own potential clients before signing them on.
“You want to protect yourself, your reputation,” he said.
Though lobbyists remain reluctant to discuss how they use their special forces, Jack Abramoff, who did jail time for his part in a corruption scandal, said that when he was a K Street heavyweight, research was an important part of his efforts.
He would assign oppo work to junior lobbyists, he said, usually with two goals in mind. One was to figure out opposing lawmakers’ other top priorities in case it became necessary to distract their attention to other matters. And two was to uncover the lowdown on rival clients.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.