Not-So-Friendly Capitol Hill Skies

Posted March 7, 2008 at 6:23pm

The lobbying team for Southwest Airlines is heeding the age-old admonition of pilots when their aircraft hits a patch of turbulence: Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced last week it wants to fine the airline more than $10 million for neglecting older planes and flying them before they’ve had their mandatory safety inspections. And that seems to be just the beginning of the airline’s Washington, D.C., woes.

[IMGCAP(1)]On Friday, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.), whose committee

has been investigating the inspection issues, blasted Southwest and the FAA for what he called a “serious lapse in safety” even though no crashes resulted.

He called the FAA environment “carrier favorable” for its “cozy relationship with the airlines.”

The whole matter puts Karen Judd Lewis, who is Southwest’s top lobbyist in Washington, D.C., in the pilot’s seat when it comes to dealing with Capitol Hill. She said the company is working with “Members on the Hill who are trying to find out the facts because we are trying to find out the facts.”

Lewis said Southwest wasn’t aware of the Congressional investigation until a news report in recent weeks. “We had no knowledge of it,” she said. “We have tried to be responsive when asked.”

Southwest is working with outside lobbying firms Public Strategies Washington, the Loeffler Group and Mondello & Associates. Whether the company would retain additional lobbyists, she said, “I don’t know at this point.”

The Southwest Airlines Pilots’ Association is also echoing the company’s message on the Hill. “We have touched base with a few of our very loyal supporters to assure them there is absolutely nothing wrong with the safety culture or the safety of our operation,” said the association’s president, Carl Kuwitzky.

Oberstar said that Congressional investigators have reason to believe the Southwest situation is not an isolated case. “We’re continuing the investigation,” he said, indicating that other airlines could be in for some Congressional turbulence themselves. He also suggested potential legislation that would put limits on the revolving door between FAA officials and the airline industry, similar to lobbying restrictions for former Members and staff.

A New Hy-Point. Jim Hyland, a veteran financial services staffer and lobbyist, has left his post at Greenberg Traurig to set up his own shop. The firm, called the Pennsylvania Avenue Group, has been in business since February and already claims a clutch of clients: the Center for Responsible Lending, Continental Automotive, the Seattle Home Loan Bank, the Texas Land Title Association and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“I had a sufficient client base to do it, and I think there’s been a trend in lobbying to have a smaller, more nimble group of people that allows you to take clients quickly,” Hyland said.

Hyland, a Republican, has formed strategic partnerships with two Democrats — former Rep. Max Sandlin (Texas) and Greenberg Traurig partner Diane Blagman — and says he expects to be hiring full-time talent soon. Hyland logged eight years working for the House Banking Committee before moving over to the Senate in 1994. There, he served as legislative director to both former Sen. Lauch Faircloth (R-N.C.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), in addition to working for the Senate Banking Committee.

K Street Moves. Marcela Urrutia-Zamora has left the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), where she served as senior policy director for Hispanic affairs, to join Verizon. She will be representing the telecom giant to both Members of Congress and outside groups, with a particular focus on Hispanic groups. Before working for Reid, she served as a senior health policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, and, prior to that, served a stint as legislative assistant to Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

• Anissa Rogness has left her post as director of economic development for Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), to join the lawmaker’s former chief of staff, Bob Van Heuvelen, in his new lobbying and consulting practice, called Van Heuvelen Strategies.

• The American Council of Life Insurers has a new mouthpiece. George Burke joined the group last week as public relations manager. He previously served as communications director for Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.).

• Mary McAuliffe, Union Pacific’s longtime top official in Washington, D.C., has officially retired from the company. Replacing her is Mike Rock, who has spent 18 years with Union Pacific and takes over the role as assistant vice president of external relations. Before he joined the company, he was legislative director to then-Rep. Bud Shuster (R-Pa.).

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