Weather Watchers

Posted February 6, 2007 at 6:43pm

Last week, weather watchers tired of freezing temps rejoiced in the news that Punxsutawney Phil, the prognosticating groundhog, had not spotted his shadow, promising an early spring. [IMGCAP(1)]

But the winter may last a little longer for AccuWeather, the private weather forecasting service based in State College, Pa., just up the road from Phil’s roost. The company has been leaning on Congress to rewrite rules governing the National Weather Service, which increasingly is offering for free the kind of information AccuWeather sells at a premium. During the 109th Congress, then-Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) made no secret of his interest in protecting his home-state company as he battled for re-election. And he caught heat in 2005 for dropping a bill critics said would restrict the National Weather Service two days after a top AccuWeather executive cut him a campaign check.

Now, with Santorum gone, AccuWeather finds itself out in the cold. “The bill expired at the end of the old Congress, and I’m not aware that anything’s happening now,” said R. Lee Rainey, a company spokesman.

FreeTheWeather.com, a Web site the company and others in the private forecasting business bankrolled last year to promote the cause, has come down. It is not clear from disclosure reports whether AccuWeather continues to keep lobbyists at Blank Rome, a Pennsylvania-based law firm, on the payroll. Calls to the group’s Washington, D.C., office were not returned.

Meanwhile, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who ousted Santorum, is not warm to the company’s pitch. A spokesman said he was critical of the bill on the campaign trail and is unlikely to reintroduce it.

Rep. John Peterson (R-Pa.), who claims Punxsutawney Phil as a constituent, offered an amendment to a spending bill last year urging the National Weather Service to “take maximum advantage of capabilities and services that already exist in the commercial sector.” That’s nonbinding language — hardly a burst of sunshine.

Happy Feet. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Gala has proved a strong draw for lawmakers since it premiered at the Kennedy Center eight years ago. This year should have been no different, with nearly 20 Members of Congress on the benefit committee. And while the show was set to go ahead on schedule Tuesday night, several familiar faces were not planning to be in the audience.

A quirk in the new House ethics rules bans lawmakers from accepting free tickets to a charity event whose sponsor employs lobbyists. The gala is sponsored by the Alvin Ailey Dance Foundation, which, from 2003 through last year, retained lobbyists from LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae to lobby for appropriations earmarks.

House Democratic leadership aides have told Roll Call the change was a mistake that leaders plan to fix. In the meantime, the ethics committee has issued unequivocal guidance on the subject.

Carolyn Peachey, whose event coordination firm planned the gala, said after receiving an opinion from the committee that lawmakers couldn’t attend for free, she passed word along to invitees. “No one wants to put a Member in a compromising position here,” she said.

Among those sitting out the performance: White House hopefuls Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), Rules Chairwoman Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) and Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.).

Ethics Police. As an eight-member House task force begins to examine whether lawmakers should outsource the job of policing ethics, one watchdog group is pointing out that 23 states have beat them to the punch.

In a report released Tuesday, U.S. PIRG notes that nearly half of state legislatures have set up independent commissions that, for the most part, are empowered to investigate and enforce compliance with ethics rules.

“Congress is almost alone in choosing to self-police,” the report concludes. “If members are serious about honest and open government, they should follow the lead of almost half of the states and establish an independent ethics enforcement commission.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) named the task force earlier this month and charged them with developing a recommendation by May.

Hey Lobbyists! Hungry? Looking for some face time with House Democratic leadership? Knock out both at once tonight at the posh Northwest D.C. home of Anthony and Heather Podesta. For a suggested contribution of a $5,000 personal check — or $15,000 from a political action committee — to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, you too can join “an intimate dinner” with Pelosi, Slaughter, Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.). Four local chefs are preparing the “delicious winter meal.”

The event is fairly standard for the Podestas, who regularly host fundraising dinners in their art-filled home. Both have made career moves recently. Anthony ended his partnership with Republican lobbyist Dan Mattoon to start the Podesta Group. Heather left Blank Rome to launch her own firm, Heather Podesta & Partners.

Sign of the (Ethics) Times. Taking advantage of the widely attended events exception to an otherwise “total” ban on gifts to Members from lobbyists, seven top lobbyists at Holland & Knight have sent out invites to a party fêting the 110th Congress.

The hosts include lobbyists Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former Colorado GOP Senator; one-time Reps. Gerry Sikorski (D-Minn.) and Jim Davis (D-Fla.); as well as Kathryn Lehman, a former chief of staff for the House Republican Conference; and lobby practice head Rich Gold.

Lest anyone fear attending the party, the invitation not only includes guidance on what to wear (“Business Attire”) but it also includes a blessing of sorts from the ethics committees.

“Holland & Knight has consulted with the House and Senate ethics committees regarding this event’s compliance with applicable House and Senate rules,” reads the invite to the Feb. 21 shindig in the Cannon House Office Building. Party on.

Name Change. When partner Fred Fielding left behind his practice earlier this year at then-Wiley Rein & Fielding to become White House counsel, he also forced the firm to invest in some new letterhead.

In a note (printed on that new stationery) to clients and colleagues, managing partner Richard Wiley announced the not-very-surprising new name: Wiley Rein LLP. Perhaps they kept some of the old stuff around in case Fielding returns to the firm after his White House tour ends … .

K Street Moves. Verizon Communications has a new vice president for federal government relations: Mark Keam, who spent six years on the staff of now-Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Keam called the new job an “excellent opportunity” that came at a time when he was ready to leave the Hill. “It’s a good convergence of issues based on my background,” he said.

• Just in time for tax season, John Dalrymple, a former deputy commissioner at the Internal Revenue Service, has joined the federal practice at Deloitte & Touche.

Jamie Weinstein contributed to this report.