A Crack Lobbyist

Posted September 21, 2007 at 6:33pm

A judicial reform group that wants to standardize punishments for drug-related offenses is stepping up its investment on Capitol Hill.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums recently tapped Jennifer Seltzer Stitt as its first full-time lobbyist — officially, director of federal legislative affairs. The group advocates rolling back mandatory sentencing requirements. [IMGCAP(1)]

And while Stitt said the agenda applies across the legal spectrum, for now she is focused on promoting legislation to equalize punishments for crack and powder cocaine convictions.

Current sentencing guidelines mandate a five-year term for possession of 5 grams of crack cocaine; someone would need to be caught with 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn the same punishment.

“The disparity truly doesn’t make sense,” said Stitt, who most previously had been director of public policy at the Population Policy Institute.

After years of no progress, Stitt said the group senses new momentum. Over the summer, a House Judiciary subcommittee held the first hearing on the issue in 14 years. And Stitt is hunting for support for a pair of bills — offered by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) — that would bring the standard for crack in line with that for cocaine.

Leftovers. After losing their House champion — former Ways and Means ex-Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) — restaurateurs faced a setback for one of their signature legislative dishes: a change in the tax code that would help them write off more expenses to repair and rebuild run-down restaurants. But last week, their lobbying efforts paid off when Reps. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.) and Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio) introduced a bill the industry craves.

The bill would change the depreciation schedule for new construction of restaurants from 39.5 years to 15 years.

Michelle Reinke, director of legislative affairs for the National Restaurant Association, said the change would allow restaurant owners to speed up their renovations. And it would help offset some of the higher expenses for restaurants caused by the newly increased minimum wage.

“We’ve been having a lot of discussions with a lot of Congressional offices,” Reinke said. “They realized the inequity here and want to fix it.”

Reinke added that under current law, gas stations and convenience stores can write off improvements on a 15-year schedule, which has put restaurants at a competitive disadvantage.

“Our members will be in town [this] week, and this will be one of the three main issues we’re going to be talking about on the House side,” she said, referring to an already planned lobbying blitz.

Dan Gans, a lobbyist working for the bill on behalf of the Association of Kentucky Fried Chicken Franchisees, said restaurateurs will have to work with the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee to come up with pay-fors. That’s because when Democrats took control of Congress, they instituted “pay-as-you-go” rules, which don’t allow any tax cuts without balancing them with revenue raisers. Both Meek and Tiberi are on the Ways and Means panel.

“We’re going to be making a big push on co-sponsors,” Gans said, adding that the effort is off to a good start. “It’s not every day that you get eight bipartisan members of the Ways and Means Committee to introduce something, and we think that shows the importance of this issue.”

A Democrat in Charge. The Washington, D.C., lobbying outpost of MWW Group —an East Rutherford, N.J., public affairs firm — is undergoing some changes in its leadership. And the firm’s power transition mirrors that of Congress.

Earlier this year, MWW brought on Timothy Yehl, a former chief of staff to Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), to serve as co-general manager along with William Morley, a one-time vice president of Congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce who joined MWW in 2005.

Now, Yehl, the Democrat, has become the sole general manager of the D.C. office, while Morley, the Republican, is on his way out. “We mutually decided that it was in the best interest of both parties for Bill to move on to different things,” Yehl said.

Yehl added that he is looking to recruit new lobbyists and add to the 10-person office as well as expand the firm’s existing client roster.

For his part, Morley said he’s leaving on good terms and plans to continue working with MWW in a different capacity. “I’ve had a wonderful two and a half years at MWW. I learned a great deal working for [CEO and founder] Michael Kempner,” Morley said. “I’ve been able to develop an international practice at MWW and grow that practice to well over $1 million.”

Morley said that over the August recess he decided it was time to move on, “to try and do something on my own, be entrepreneurial.” Morley said his next venture is still in the works, but he plans to bring at least some of his MWW clients with him. “I will have a solid list of my clients that will be coming with me,” he said, although he added that it was premature to name them.

Change seems to be nothing new at MWW. In recent years, the shop lost such clients as Bacardi and Roche as well as several of its lobbyists, including Jonathan Slade, who joined the Cormac Group, and Christine Pellerin, who is at the Normandy Group.

Shopping Around. After launching his own firm earlier this year, Republican lobbyist Jim Hirni has closed up shop to become senior director of federal government relations for longtime client Wal-Mart Stores. Hirni, a former lobbyist with Cassidy & Associates and Greenberg Traurig, spent several years on Capitol Hill working for former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), former Sen. Tim Hutchinson (R-Ark.) and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

The giant retailer is still shopping for a new chief Washington, D.C., lobbyist, a process that began in March, when Wal-Mart announced that it was promoting Lee Culpepper to vice president of corporate affairs, a job that took him to the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

K Street Moves. ML Strategies has added Maureen Walsh, formerly executive vice president at Public Policy Partners and a one-time lobbyist with the now-defunct Stewart Barnes lobbying firm, as director of federal government relations. After leaving Public Policy Partners, Walsh graduated from Georgetown University Law Center.

• Dow Lohnes Government Strategies has added Jessica Lenard, a former top aide to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), and Bernie Schroeder, who once served as chief of staff to Dow Lohnes lobbyist and former Rep. Bob Carr (D-Mich.).

• An 18-year Capitol Hill veteran, Mark Harkins, who was chief of staff to Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), has joined the lobbying operation of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice as senior government relations adviser.

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