Car Troubles

Posted September 23, 2005 at 5:21pm

Toyota’s lobbyists are working on major repairs to their relationship with one Republican Senator who has harshly criticized the company in recent weeks. [IMGCAP(1)]

As Roll Call reported last week, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) sent a scathing letter to the Japan-based company’s chairman, expressing his “distress” after hearing about Toyota’s plans to expand in Iran, a country that President Bush has labeled a member of the “axis of evil.” In response, Toyota Motor North America President and CEO Hideaki Otaka sent a letter to Smith on Sept. 21 trying to allay the Senator’s concerns.

Apparently, it was to no avail.

Smith “remains concerned,” said Chris Matthews, a spokesman for the Senator. The executive’s missive “didn’t really address his concerns.”

Matthews said Toyota’s lobbyists had been in touch with the office, but he declined to characterize any of the interactions.

At issue are several press quotes in which a top Toyota executive in Australia, John Conomos, has discussed his interest in expanding the company’s reach in Iran. “The Iranian market is one million units, so the Camry opportunity is pretty strong,” he is quoted as saying in a July article in the Melbourne, Australia, Herald Sun.

Despite what was said in those articles, Toyota’s letter to Smith said that “Toyota does not manufacture in Iran and has no plans to do so.” The letter added that “Toyota supports the elimination of terror activities and those organizations that engage in terror across the globe.”

Toyota Washington spokeswoman Martha Voss said, “We’ve seen the clippings, too. All I know is that our contacts … in Japan are telling us we have no sales plans in Iran to announce at this time. We are doing our best to dig to the bottom of this. And we are more than willing to keep talking with the Senator.”

The Senator’s missive disrupted what would have been an otherwise routine lobbying fly-in featuring more than 100 executives and employees from Toyota’s U.S. operations.

Still, Voss said the lobbying meetings, which totaled 80 to 100 visits with Members and staff last week, were a success.

But, she added, “I’m still perplexed as to why Toyota’s being targeted when we’re such a small part of the [Iranian] market.”

Katrina Bailout, Take 2. In internal communications, lobbyists for mortgage lenders are continuing to refine their pitch for seeking federal relief from costs related to Hurricane Katrina.

As Roll Call reported Thursday, the industry’s Washington, D.C., representatives are readying a measure to have the National Flood Insurance Program retroactively cover thousands of flood-damaged homes, saving banks from having to foreclose on an untold number of mortgages.

In a Wednesday memo to member companies, Anne Canfield, who heads the coalition of leading mortgage banks seeking relief, outlined the idea’s pros and cons.

In the “Pros” column, Canfield noted that the federal government could recoup the cost of the bailout with future premium payments to the program. She pointed to the Pentagon’s increasing death benefits for victims of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as a precedent for retrospectively changing government compensation programs. And she also noted that “if government says it can’t do this it reinforces why private industry can’t either.”

Among the cons? “Industry could get sucked into providing some element of financial assistance for flood victims now and into the future.”

So much for post-Katrina goodwill.

The Other Side of K Street. When most Washingtonians think of “K Street,” they picture pin-striped lobbyists with sparkling cufflinks who set up Congressional meetings by BlackBerry.

What probably doesn’t come to mind is thumping hip-hop music with a crowd that includes Washington Nationals and Redskins players mingling with an upper-crust, international set. But this alternative K Street is the one that gets going after 10 p.m., when most lobbyists are cruising home after hitting their last fundraiser.

The newly opened night club’s discreet, black-and-white lettered name simply says : K Street. It’s tucked away under an office building at 1301 K St. NW that houses lobbying and law firms.

Kerry Chao, one of the club’s three owners, said the establishment opened more than a month ago and caters to an international crowd that demands “a lot of high-end bottle service.”

The music includes hip-hop and house, with different promoters bringing in their own DJs. Depending on the night, cover can range from $10 to $40.

Chao said that, so far, K Street has attracted the city’s other club owners and club-goers, but not many from the influence business. But starting in about two weeks, Chao said K Street will begin opening its doors four hours earlier to woo the happy- hour clique.

“We’re trying to go for the business, white-collar crowd after work,” said Chao, whose business partners are Ki Jun Sung and David Chung. “They can relax, have a nice drink — it’ll be a little more laid-back. At night, it starts to hop. We want everybody to have a chance to come in and see the space.”

K Street’s happy-hour specials are still in the works, but Chao promises that the business crowd won’t pay the same prices as the club-goers.

Westward Expansion. The D.C.-based public affairs firm M+R Strategic Services is expanding its operations with new offices in Seattle and Chicago. The company specializes in public relations, direct mail and Internet advocacy as well as traditional lobbying and strategic planning.

Heather Weiner will head up the Seattle office. And Sean Tenner, who recently opened the Chicago branch, said that office will focus on in-state political races as well as local and national issues campaigns for such clients as the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.

Tenner, who had been based at M+R’s D.C. office, previously worked on the successful 2004 U.S. Senate campaign of Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and before that worked for the Illinois House Democratic Caucus. Tenner said he plans to expand the now two-person office.

M+R already has outside-the-Beltway outposts in New York, Montana and Oregon.

K Street Moves. Jim Beam Brands Worldwide, best known for its bourbons, has continued to stock its lobbying shop with advocates from spirits conglomerate Allied Domecq.

Matt Stanton, who was director of government affairs for Allied Domecq, will tend to all public policy and industry trade relations for Jim Beam in North America by keeping watch on Congress, the administration and state and local governments. Jim Beam Brands also is in the process of expanding its liquor cabinet to include such brands as Courvoisier cognac, Sauza tequila and Canadian Club whiskey. And Jim Beam is awaiting approval to acquire the Marker’s Mark bourbon brand.

Jim Bean recently brought on Chris Swonger, who had been senior vice president of corporate affairs with Allied Domecq, as its senior vice president of corporate affairs. Stanton, who previously served as vice president of government relations for the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, will report to Swonger.

Also: Anthony Marken, most recently a vice president in the military installations section of lobby shop ML Strategies, has joined the Ketchum-owned Washington Group as a vice president. Marken’s hire is a key component to the growth of the Washington Group’s government contracting practice, said the firm’s CEO, former Rep. Susan Molinari (R-N.Y.), in a statement. “He also offers The Washington Group additional expertise for our real estate, defense, energy and other clients,” she added.

In the meantime, ML Strategies has picked up a new hire of it own. Steven Irizarry signs on as a vice president of government relations. A former senior health counsel for the Senate Special Committee on Aging, Irizarry advised Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) on such issues as health insurance, managed care, public health and Medicare. Previously, he worked for Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) on food, drug and bioterrorism policy.

Other Moves: The Nickles Group, launched earlier this year by former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), continues its rapid growth with the addition of Brian Wild. He starts at the firm next month after leaving the office of Vice President Cheney, where he served as deputy assistant for legislative affairs. … International Paper has hired Ann Wrobleski, who currently is a vice president at the American Forest and Paper Association, as its vice president of public affairs. Wrobleski will start on Oct. 1. The firm Korn/Ferry International conducted the search.