How Not to Get ‘Abramoffed’
Lobbying Firms, Clients Heighten Attention to Ethical Practices
Dan Brouillette, the vice president of government affairs for Ford Motor Co., checks in with his stable of outside lobbyists every week. But in the past fortnight, while also juggling post-Hurricane Katrina duties for the automaker in his home state of Louisiana, Brouillette gave his consultants a reminder: When it comes to lobbying ethics, campaign finance laws and corporate integrity, the hired guns who represent Ford must keep their reputations squeaky clean.
“I didn’t go after people or try to create a sense of unrest,” said Brouillette, a former Bush administration official and a one-time contract lobbyist himself. “I just told people it’s one of the fundamental rules of lobbyists: Your reputation is the only thing you have. From a corporate standpoint, I have to account to the head shed, and the last thing I want is to have to go back to my board and say I hired a guy who is now in jail.”
While partly joking about the jail scenario, Brouillette makes a salient point for the current era in Washington, D.C.: A culture of jitters has taken hold on K Street.
The business of lobbying has attracted an unwanted spotlight, as the Senate gears up for a new round of hearings into the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, and as more details become public about the ever-expanding federal investigations into Abramoff, his former colleagues and Members.
And in response, a few unofficial post-Abramoff “reforms” are already starting to pop up in lobbying practices around town.
One senior trade association lobbyist, who would talk about his group’s policy changes only on condition of anonymity, said that recently his employer has taken a stricter interpretation when it comes to dining staffers.
“When you take someone to lunch, you can only use your corporate credit card now — you can’t use a personal credit card and then be reimbursed,” he explained.
Although ethics rules clearly bar a registered lobbyist from paying for a Congressional trip and then receiving reimbursement from a client, the question of whether a registered lobbyist can be reimbursed for footing a meal is less clear-cut.
Even so, this association lobbyist said his group’s outside counsel recommended the change to steer clear of even the possibility that they may trigger ethics violations.
Ken Gross, a campaign and lobbying ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom’s D.C. office, said that last week alone he did three speeches in three days to business groups in which he covered how to comply with campaign finance, ethics and lobbying rules.
Gross said that the Abramoff case, new state ethics laws as well as what he believes is an increase in referrals of potential lobbying disclosure act violations to prosecutors has prompted an uptick in his already busy practice.
“On the campaign-finance front, we’re seeing more serious implications and more aggressiveness by the Department of Justice,” he said. “The business of lobbying and entertaining public officials and making contributions is going to continue. At the same time, compliance has become a more important element.”
Craig Engle, a lawyer at Arent Fox who focuses on political law and lobbying, said that his existing clients and potential clients are seeking him out for clarification of the rules and regulations that govern lobbying and other political activity.
The recent scandals, he said, “have prompted trade associations and corporations to have a refresher course for their executives and employees,” he said. “Oftentimes, this takes the form of a memorandum that gets circulated through an organization, or a meeting or an agenda item.”
One contract lobbyist, who also refused to comment with his name or his firm’s name, said that the rules are often murky. Recently, he retained a law firm to help him evaluate his business in light of the Abramoff investigations.
“It’s important to me to make sure we’re knowledgeable about the rules out there and to make sure we’re following them correctly,” this lobbyist said. “We hired a law firm to educate us.”
“We don’t want to get our name in the paper,” this lobbyist added. “I see what’s happening to other lobbyists in town, and I don’t want to be accused of any wrong-doing.”
The lobbyist pointed to one area in which the fundraising rules can be convoluted to interpret: expenses related to traveling to a fundraiser.
In the past, this lobbyist said he has expensed cab receipts to his firm when he was traveling across town to attend a fundraising event where he was presenting a personal check.
Having the firm pay for the cab fare is similar to having it pay for the postage stamp on the campaign check’s envelope — and the firm can’t pay for that, this lobbyist said. “I never used to think about that.”
But this lobbyist said that the fear prompted by the federal scandals and investigations is so great that “lobbyists are being villainized. And if the dogs are out hunting us all down, we’ve got to be making sure we are dotting all our i’s.”
Gross said that, in regard to the taxicab situation, the Federal Election Commission has not made a specific ruling. But, he noted, “You don’t want to be the test case.”
Other lobbyists may not have gone as far as hiring a new lawyer, but several report that they are giving ethics and good behavior top priority at internal meetings.
Michael Fulton, who heads the lobbying practice at Golin/Harris International, said that during regular staff meetings conducted in his office, his team has dissected some of the news accounts related to Abramoff and his colleagues’ business practices.
“We’re not concerned that our staff would ever do something like that,” Fulton said. “But we’ve just been trying to do a little bit better job of talking about it and circulating some of the stories.”
Fulton added that his firm has instituted a policy that all clients receive copies of the lobbying disclosure reports that Golin/Harris files on their behalf. The initial probe into Abramoff had to do with possible overcharging of lobbying fees, but the investigation has become much wider.
H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, who runs one of the city’s biggest lobby shops, Van Scoyoc Associates, said that this year when his firm put on its annual human resources seminar — which deals with sexual harassment and discrimination issues — ethics took a new slot on the agenda.
For the first time, Van Scoyoc said, “we brought in a former ethics committee staffer in here and did a briefing on the rules for everybody.”
Lindsay Hooper — whose firm Capitol Tax Partners is one of a handful retained by Brouillette’s company, Ford — said that ethics issues have remained in the forefront in several clients’ minds now and also before more recent details have become public in the Abramoff scandal.
“We’ve had a number of conversations with clients” in addition to Ford, Hooper said. Those conversations have been “a reminder that they are expecting the consultants are living by the same high standards that the companies have.”