For Gov. Barbour, D.C. Ties Are Proving Vital

Posted October 21, 2005 at 5:29pm

When Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour (R) returns to Washington, D.C. this week, he will receive a warm welcome from a large cast of K Street’s heaviest hitters.

Barbour, who resigned as chairman and CEO of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers before being sworn in as governor last year, is slated to headline a hurricane recovery benefit on Tuesday organized by his former lobbying partners.

Two Senators, a former cabinet secretary and nearly 100 of Washington’s most prominent lobbyists are hosting the bash, which aims to raise at least $250,000 — testimony to Barbour’s continuing footprint in Washington as he serves in a state capital 1,000 miles away.

Barbour’s extensive network inside Washington, built during three decades in senior positions within the Republican Party apparatus, has helped him steer substantial resources from both the public and private sectors to his home state since Katrina ravaged its coastline two months ago.

But Tuesday’s welcome from K Street — moved to a U.S. Chamber of Commerce hall after it outgrew its planned space in the Caucus Room, a downtown restaurant Barbour co-founded — is both a signal of his continuing relevance in Washington and a sign of questions about his relationship with his old firm.

Just months after Barbour cut ties to the firm bearing his name, his former partners reclaimed a profitable stake in it when they bought back a controlling interest in the shop from the international conglomerate that acquired it in 1999.

At the time, it appeared that Barbour was in on the deal, though now it is unclear whether he owns any piece of the firm, and if so, how much. That’s because all of the governor’s holdings are managed in a blind trust, which is supposed to shield them from public scrutiny.

“The firm is now privately held,” said Ed Rogers, who succeeded Barbour as chairman and is a host of the Tuesday event. “All his assets are in a blind trust, and he has no involvement in the firm.”

Rogers referred questions about Barbour’s stake to the governor’s office, which did not return calls for comment. After Barbour was elected in 2003, his former partners, Rogers and Lanny Griffith, prepared for his return to the firm by setting up a separate lobbying entity called Griffith & Rogers to handle two University of Mississippi accounts.

If Barbour’s assets include a stake in his old firm, he would benefit from any new business the lobby shop attracts. Barbour’s firm saw its revenue slide by 13 percent in 2003, the year he left to campaign. Since, it has rebounded strongly, posting a 34 percent gain for the first half of this year over the same period last year.

Due to the sensitivity of Barbour’s position, the firm has tread carefully since the summer’s hurricanes reordered the Congressional calendar for the rest of the year.

While it reportedly has lobbied on hurricane-related matters for existing clients, such as BellSouth and Southern Co., Rogers said the firm has avoided signing up new businesses seeking government help after the disasters.

Potential clients that have approached the firm about such work in recent weeks have been turned away, Rogers said.

Still, one of the firm’s existing clients, Florida-based AshBritt, has earned Congressional scrutiny for the $500 million debris-removal contract it was awarded last month by the Army Corps of Engineers, according to The Associated Press and The New York Times.

Watchdog groups have said the cost of the contract is exorbitant and it lacks controls to ensure the work gets done.

Barbour Griffith & Rogers signed up the company in March for $40,000 for the first six months of the year, reporting that it would lobby Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers for the client on “disaster-mitigation issues.”

To be sure, that amount makes the company one of the firm’s smaller clients. And on Sept. 1, just days after Katrina struck, AshBritt added to its lobbying muscle by hiring Mike Parker, a former six-term Republican Congressman from Mississippi and, until 2002, a senior official with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Under state ethics law, if Barbour maintains a stake in the firm, he would have been barred from helping AshBritt secure its contract.

“The governor is prohibited from using his official position to obtain a pecuniary benefit for a company in which he has a stake,” said Scott Rankin, executive director of the Mississippi Ethics Commission.

Regardless, said Keith Ashdown, of Taxpayers for Common Sense, Barbour should make clear whether he owns a share of his old firm.

“It’s about appearances,” he said. “As chief executive of that state, if he keeps a stake in the firm, there are always going to be questions about why these guys are getting the contracts.”

But if Barbour’s long-standing ties to the lobbying industry are raising eyebrows in some quarters, they are paying dividends in others, as the Bayou State governor rounds up private-sector help in what promises to be an extended campaign to rebuild.

Barbour’s background as a lobbyist — an issue that then-Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) used aggressively against Barbour in 2003 — could actually be an asset for his re-election.

Longtime friend Don Fierce, a lobbyist with Fierce, Isakowitz and Blalock, said Barbour’s history has granted him knowledge of how government works, and who makes it happen. “He can reach to anybody, because he knows so many people. And once he gets there, he knows what to ask for,” he said.