Elmendorf’s Double Duty

Posted March 18, 2003 at 6:39pm

Steve Elmendorf, a top political strategist to presidential hopeful Rep. Richard Gephardt (Mo.), filed papers late last month to lobby Congress on behalf of the nation’s largest union of trial lawyers.

Elmendorf, who served for five years as Gephardt’s chief of staff, registered to lobby the House on behalf of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, one of the steadiest supporters of Gephardt’s political career. He is simultaneously serving as a paid outside consultant for Gephardt’s presidential campaign.

The revelation comes just days after the Federal Election Commission ruled that a similar situation involving GOP consultant Ralph Reed, who was working for the Enron Corp. at the same time that he was advising the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in 2000, was perfectly legal.

The FEC issued its ruling in the wake of a complaint filed by Larry Klayman’s Judicial Watch. Klayman charged that the politically wired, Texas-based energy company paid Reed $300,000 in a clever scheme to sidestep election law.

By paying Reed a monthly fee, the complaint asserted, Enron was effectively paying Reed’s campaign salary. However, the FEC voted unanimously last week that the complaint had “no merit.”

Still, the latest filing by Elmendorf could spark another debate over the ability of political advisers to serve both a presidential candidate and corporate clients.

“Who does Mr. Elmendorf owe his allegiance to?” asked Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. “It’s always a legitimate question when presidential candidates hire lobbyists to give campaign advice.”

Elmendorf is far from the first political consultant to serve more than one boss. If fact, it has become quite common for campaign strategists, pollsters and media consultants to sign up corporate clients in addition to their political candidates.

Nick Baldick, who runs the presidential campaign for Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), also provides strategic advice for a variety of corporate clients as a partner at the Dewey Square Group.

In 2000, Anita Dunn advised the primary campaign of former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) even though she worked for corporate clients at Squire Knapp Dunn Communications.

Dunn took a leave of absence from the firm and Baldick plans to do the same.

Moreover, neither of those strategists was paid to directly lobby Members of Congress.

According to Elmendorf and lobbying registration forms, he left his post as chief of staff in Gephardt’s Capitol Hill office earlier this year in order to take a more active role running the presidential effort.

Soon after leaving Gephardt’s office, the filings show, Elmendorf signed on as a lobbyist for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America on medical malpractice legislation.

Elmendorf said in an interview that when Gephardt’s campaign “heats up,” he intends to continue lobbying Congress. But he stressed that his work on the campaign trail will take precedence.

“Obviously, my first priority is the campaign,” said Elmendorf, who refused to discuss how much he is being paid. He will not have to disclose that sum to the Clerk of the House for several months.

A spokesman for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America said Elmendorf’s stay could “be for several months or it could be forever.”

Elmendorf said he is open to signing up more clients, though he does not know how much time he will have to lobby once the Democratic primary season gets fully under way.

“As the campaign goes on, it sucks up more and more of your time,” he said. “It’s tough to say what you can and can’t do.”

However, Elmendorf said he decided not to join an established lobbying firm because “I’m not entirely sure how much time I am going to have” to lobby Congress.

House ethics rules prohibit Elmendorf from lobbying Gephardt’s replacement as Minority Leader — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — or any other member of the House leadership for one year. But he is free to speak with rank-and-file Members of either party.

Elmendorf said the so-called revolving door rule will not hinder his effectiveness as a lobbyist.

“Having worked in the leadership, you can provide people with strategic advice without dealing with the leadership directly,” he said. “It won’t be a problem. Their interest is talking to the 190-something nonleadership Members. I can help them with that.”

Last year, Elmendorf was one of the best-paid Congressional aides, hauling in $148,500 as a senior aide in the House leadership, according to a Roll Call survey of payroll records. He also made $20,000 from Gephardt’s fundraising arm, the Effective Government Committee.

Together, the $168,500 annual salary ranked him as one of the top earners in Congress — surpassing even Gephardt, who pulled in $161,200 last year.

While it is unclear how much Elmendorf will make this year in his dual roles, he is expected to fare well financially while working on Gephardt’s campaign.

“I don’t think anyone expects people to give up their lives for two years,” he said.