An Earmark’s Path Feeds Debate

Posted May 19, 2009 at 6:33pm

On March 17, 2008, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) wrote a letter requesting a $1.6 million earmark for an Ohio company to build collapsible polyurethane fuel storage tanks for the military.

This unremarkable earmark is interesting mostly because of the lobbyist for the company that makes the storage bladders: Mary Anne Walsh, who had been Ryan’s chief of staff until she left his office a year and a few days before Ryan wrote the letter.

For ethics reformers around Capitol Hill, Walsh’s role in the earmark is an example of the Congressional revolving door — a staff member gets paid big bucks to leave Congress and return to fetch federal dollars for the clients who are now paying for her access to key Members.

But Walsh broke no rules and told Roll Call that the earmark is actually an example of the process working well — the project was authorized before it was appropriated, it was in the national interest but not in Ryan’s district, and it represented cooperation between Members for the good of their state. Walsh said she never spoke to Ryan’s office about the earmark.

The earmark was for the Seaman Corp. in Wooster, Ohio, in the district of then-Rep. Ralph Regula (R). Seaman has a second facility in Bristol, Tenn., in the district that former Republican Rep. David Davis represented for one term, and Davis and Regula secured an earmark for the project in 2007. The company did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

In March 2007, Walsh left Ryan’s office and joined the Akron law firm Roetzel & Andress, establishing the firm’s Washington, D.C., office. In November, Walsh registered to lobby on behalf of Seaman, effective April 1, 2007. Seaman also had lobbying contracts with D.C.-based Strategic Marketing Innovations.

In October 2007, Regula announced that he would retire at the end of the 110th Congress, and Walsh said he was concerned about making sure that support for the Seaman project continued.

“I met with Mr. Regula in February ’08,— to discuss the Seaman request, Walsh said, and “he said he would be seeking the support of his area colleagues, including Mr. Ryan, who is the head of the [Congressional] Manufacturing Caucus. … Until [Roll Call’s] e-mail indicating that Mr. Ryan had sent a letter, I was unaware that he had written one.—

Asked about his role in this project, Ryan said in an e-mail to Roll Call: “The only criterion that I use in requesting earmarks is on a program’s potential to increase the quality of life and economic output of the state of Ohio and Northeast Ohio. As a result, in addition to taking the lead on earmarks within my district, I very often lend my support to other Members’ projects if I believe their project provides a regional or statewide benefit.—

As members of the Appropriations Committee, Ryan and Regula had supported earmarks in other Ohio Congressional districts.

In August 2008, Regula’s legislative director, Ricardo Limardo, joined Walsh at Roetzel & Andress, and they remain the only two D.C.-based staff members for the firm.

Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, said the hires are “the classic abuse of the revolving door.—

“The corporation and the lobbying firm are enticing senior staff away from the [Congressional] office at very lucrative salaries … and they are brought in to these lobbying firms with specific missions in mind, and it is to secure earmarks,— he said.

Holman agrees that Walsh broke no rules if she did not lobby Ryan directly within a year of leaving his office but argues that the restriction is “very limited— because it did not prevent Walsh from lobbying Regula or other Members during that period, nor does it prevent her from being involved in “strategic planning— for a lobbying effort as long as she does not actually pick up the phone and call her old office.

Walsh said it is a mistake to view the storage tank earmark simply through the lens of her relationship with Ryan.

“This earmark passes the smell test,— Walsh said, because it is supported by several Members, had been authorized by the Armed Services Committee and was needed by the military.

But Walsh also said she understands that some people look askance at former staff members who become lobbyists.

“When you leave the Hill, largely what you sell is your credibility and your understanding of the process … and you are not going to violate the rules,— Walsh said.

Before becoming a lobbyist, she spent 29 years as a Congressional staffer. “I know a lot of Members. … I can get an appointment with Members throughout the Congress,— she said, but if she intended to “cash in— on her Congressional experience, “I could have left the Hill after 10 years and made a hell of a lot more money.—