Lobbying Champions

Winning on Capitol Hill, Too

Posted April 30, 2004 at 2:44pm

Star athletes from Dikembe Mutombo to Andre Agassi aren’t just successful on the court. With the help of veteran K Streeters, they’ve also chalked up a solid win-loss record on Capitol Hill.

Consider bicyclist Lance Armstrong, the five-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor. Last year, the Lance Armstrong Foundation paid the lobbying firm Sonnenchein Nath & Rosenthal $80,000 to lobby both the House and Senate on cancer-related issues. As a result,

this year’s omnibus bill included $400,000 for the Lance Armstrong Foundation’s National Cancer Survivorship Resources Center in Austin, Texas.

Sometimes lobbyists take up an athlete’s cause pro bono. Former Baltimore Oriole iron man Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Billy got the Duke Group to lobby free of charge for their charitable cause, the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. The organization received $3 million under Justice Department appropriations, part of which will help construct a youth baseball facility — based on the design of Orioles Park at Camden Yards — in the Ripken hometown of Aberdeen, Md.

Meanwhile, the law firm Hogan & Hartson lobbied pro bono for basketball star Mutombo’s foundation, which aims to improve health conditions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mutombo’s native country. The foundation was seeking funds in the 2004 foreign operations appropriations bill to build a $14 million hospital in the capital, Kinshasa. While no funds were earmarked for the project in this year’s federal budget, appropriators did set aside $5 million for general economic support and inclusion on a list of nations that shared in a pot of $34 million for family planning aid.

For some well-connected sports foundations, K Street’s help is only the tip of the iceberg. The First Tee organization, a nonprofit run by the golf world’s PGA Tour, paid Holland and Knight and Piper Rudnick $80,000 and $60,000 respectively to lobby on their behalf.

But First Tee also benefits from the honorary chairmanship of former President George H.W. Bush and many Members’ passion for golf. At First Tee’s annual Congressional breakfast in the Capitol, golf-crazed Members of Congress have been able to mingle with such former champions as Arnold Palmer and Tom Watson. And in 2002, Jack Nicklaus testified on behalf of First Tee before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Such star power has paid dividends. For fiscal 2004, First Tee — which operates a total of 128 facilities and programs in the United States, Canada, Singapore and Australia — is set to receive $2 million in discretionary funds and another $1 million for a character education program from the federal government.

Larry Grossman, who represented tennis star Andre Agassi’s foundation when he worked for Cassidy & Associates and now at his own shop, the Grossman Group, said politicians want to help not because they are star-struck but because they understand that their goals are laudable.

“I think obviously Andre is a well-known figure, but I think people have gotten to know what he’s doing back home,” Grossman said. “Does name recognition help? Yes, but [Andre] works it. Every single day he works.”

Agassi’s foundation lobbies for programs that benefit his home state of Nevada, such as the Andre Agassi Preparatory College Academy, which received $800,000 this year, and Child Haven, a center for abused and neglected children in the state’s Clark County, which received $1.4 million, Grossman said.

While Agassi has not testified before any committee, he will be in Washington in August for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic.

Golfer Tiger Woods’ self-named foundation is also getting into the Washington lobbying scene. The world’s most famous golfer paid Russ Reid Co. $20,000 to lobby for a $25 million Tiger Woods Learning center in Anaheim, Calif. Woods has put up $5 million of his own money and has raised $16 million through private donations for the center.

The foundation is looking for a modest earmark and isn’t sure if Woods will be coming to the Hill personally to gin up support for his project, said Jim Dornan, a vice president of Russ Reid.

“We understand that there is sort of a downward trend toward earmarks,” Dornan said.