Trip Back to Hill Often Costly

Lobbyists Shed Salary for Chance to Work in Democratic Majority

Posted April 17, 2007 at 6:07pm

Last year, Dennis Fitzgibbons made more than $460,000 in salary, bonuses and stock options. This year, no matter how many hours he logs or how many professional victories he engineers, he still could not earn much more than $160,000.

Fitzgibbons left a lucrative lobbying job with DaimlerChrysler to return to Capitol Hill as staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The only downside is, perhaps, the pay cut, which he gladly took because his former and current boss — Energy and Commerce Chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) — asked him to do so. “I’ve always found it easier to say yes to him than to say no,” Fitzgibbons said.

Fitzgibbons, like other lobbyists who have taken top Hill jobs in recent months, was required to file a personal financial disclosure statement detailing his private-sector salary, stock holdings and assets within 30 days of taking his position. He certainly wasn’t the only one to take the pay slice in exchange for the insider view of Capitol Hill.

And those disclosures offer a glimpse into the marketplace of K Street.

Ivan Adler, a lobbyist head hunter at the McCormick Group, said that Democratic lobbyists who returned to Capitol Hill left behind potentially hefty raises on K Street.

But, he said, they could make up for it if they go back.

“It increases their value in the private sector because they’ve had the chance to work with the majority,” he said.

Fitzgibbons said he went back for “the opportunity to see from the inside the installation of a new Democratic majority, to build things, to help build a staff. In a matter of 24 hours you can affect an area of public policy, through oversight, a nicely timed letter asking questions about a policy practice.”

Jay Heimbach, chief of staff to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), didn’t actually return to the Hill — rather, he previously worked in the White House’s office of legislative affairs and the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration, before moving to K Street. He left behind a $160,000-a-year job with the all-Democratic firm Ricchetti Inc., according to his disclosure report.

“I came to Washington to do public service, and the Democratic change meant things like stem cells, which I care about, had a much greater likelihood of passing,” said Heimbach, who added that he feels passionately about stem-cell research because his father died of diabetes complications and stem-cell research holds promise for the disease. “It isn’t really a sacrifice, it’s an honor.”

As a Democratic lobbyist, Heimbach’s salary could have increased considerably from what he disclosed on his reports. “We’ll never know,” he said. “But I got to be there and watch the vote on stem cells and be there for something that would have helped my father.”

All Hill staff members who earn the equivalent of the federal government’s “senior staff” rate — $109,808 in 2006 — must file personal financial disclosures.

Ken Gross, a lobbying and ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the purpose behind the disclosures is to avoid conflicts of interest.

But, he said, “the rules regarding recusal are not crafted with bright lines. There has to be a real specific conflict of interest with a particular holding.”

Gross said that there is no “clear-cut rule, like a specific cooling-off period.” Former lobbyists are free to work with their old colleagues and on issues they worked on as lobbyists. “At what point do you say, ‘Wait a minute. I shouldn’t be doing this because I’ve just been paid to lobby the issue the other way.’”

Dan Turton, who left Timmons & Co. to become staff director of the House Rules Committee, said he left behind a certain boost to an already lucrative salary of more than $400,000 for “the opportunity to join my party in the majority.” Turton called the move “an exciting professional challenge” and said that the government benefits from people with his background. “I think it’s very beneficial for Members to have advice from senior staff that have different professional experiences,” he said.

Sean Kennedy left a reported $212,000 annual salary with AT&T for the chief of staff slot to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). And Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) tapped Jeff Lane, a former chief of staff to then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), to run his office. Lane left a job at Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice to return to the Senate, and he reported a private-sector salary of $180,000.

Democrats weren’t the only ones going to Capitol Hill from K Street.

Jon Traub left the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association this year to work for the Republican Ways and Means Committee staff.

“First of all, my paycheck right now is the same size as my paycheck I got from SIFMA. It’s just that it comes half as often,” Traub quipped.

While at SIFMA, he reported an annual salary of more than $250,000, but he said the chance to work for the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), “was just too good to pass up.”

“When I left [the Hill] in 2004, I always thought I might want to come back,” he said. “I had obviously hoped he would be chairman.”

Victor Klatt III, who left a very lucrative job last year at Van Scoyoc Associates, went to the House Education and Labor Committee as the Republican staff director. He reported pulling in nearly $1.2 million the year before he joined the committee — revealing that he had a significant book of business at the appropriations-focused firm.

“I enjoyed being a lobbyist,” he said. “I am not at all ashamed of being a lobbyist, and who knows, there may be a day when I may be a lobbyist again.”

He said that returning to government service after private-sector employment is nothing unusual among Democrats or Republicans and that he hoped the public financial disclosures or post-employment restrictions on some staffers who go into the lobbying field will not keep experienced aides from going back into government.

“I learned a lot about things when I was on the outside, and it seems to me you want people with experience to do these jobs, and I’d hate to see people discouraged from coming back in here to work in important jobs,” said Klatt, who spent five years at Van Scoyoc.

Most of the lobbyists-turned-staffers declined to say whether they plan to return to private sector gigs.

“Honestly I have no idea,” said one of the Democrats who returned to the Hill. “Every week, I get a job offer.”