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.
“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.”