Archive for May, 2010

Movie Review: “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”

Wednesday, May 12th, 2010 by Drew

My favorite part of the new documentary film about lobbying, “Casino Jack and the United States of Money” occurs in the first half hour of the film. It is a brief clip of archival footage used to show how Jack Abramoff—the former lobbyist whose greed and hubris led to his conviction for fraud and corruption in 2006—grew out of the same “radical” Republican student movement of the 70s and 80s that spawned Grover Norquist and Karl Rove. The clip is of Rove, looking about 14 years old, talking to a reporter about the ascendant College Republicans. It’s fascinating not so much because of what Rove is saying, but because in the clip Rove has hair, a lot of it, shaped in what today would be described as an emo-style haircut. It is glorious, and well worth the price of admission.

Whether the rest of the film is worth watching is up for debate. The film’s director, Alex Gibney (whose “Taxi to the Dark Side” won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2008) portrays Abramoff as a thick-necked charmer who, as chairman of the College Republican National Committee, developed a paranoid anti-communist worldview that eventually led to his staging of a meeting of rebel leaders in Angola. After leaving politics for a stint in Hollywood (where he produced an anti-communist action film starring Dolph Lundgren called “Red Scorpion”, clips of which rival the one of Rove for awesomeness) Abramoff wound up in Washington working as a lobbyist. The rest is history.

Gibney chronicles Abramoff’s criminal activities in detail, and they’re familiar enough that I don’t need to summarize them here. Through archival footage and compelling interviews with Tom DeLay, Neil Volz and Bob Ney, Gibney deftly explains what Abramoff’s crimes were and how he went about committing them. But though this movie is ostensibly about Abramoff and his shenanigans, it’s actually an attempt to portray the entire lobbying system as hopelessly corrupt. As anti-lobbying propaganda, it pretty much works. The problem is, as those in and around K Street know, lobbying isn’t the innately evil industry Gibney tries to make it out to be. Yes, it has problems; so does every other industry. But as we’ve shown before on the Lobby Blog, there are “good” lobbyists too. Unfortunately, most viewers ofCasino Jack and the United States of Money probably won’t ever hear their side of the story.

Watch the trailer here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2TQXjV3g-Lc.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money is playing at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema.

Lobbying Factors of Influence Chart Released

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010 by Brittany

Lobbyists.info is now offering a new resource in its free resources section, the Factors of Influence Chart. This new feature allows you to sort Lobbyists.info’s comprehensive database on the federal lobbying industry by nine critical areas and serves as an easy way to rank 2,800 lobbying firms by the most influential criteria in the industry: employees, clients, issue areas, income and Congressional connections.

Visit the free resources section of Lobbyists.info to search for federal lobbying firms by number of lobbyists employed, number of clients, number of legislative issues, lobbying income and number of lobbyists who previously worked on Capitol Hill. This Hill “alumni” figure is further broken down to display the number of firm employees who at one time worked for a currently serving member of Congress.

For more information and to view the Factors of Influence Chart visit http://www.lobbyists.info/Firm_Factors_Influence.aspx.

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Executive Branch Edition

Tuesday, May 11th, 2010 by Vbhotla

D.C. is abuzz with President Obama’s nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court.  As she is currently a member of the Executive Branch, any attempts to wine or dine her in the days and weeks leading up to the Senate’s confirmation hearings must fall safely under the Executive Branch gift and ethics rules.

So let’s take a look at some of those ethics / gift rules:

General rule: “prohibited sources” (those with business before the particular agency) may not give a gift (or gifts) to agency employees. Executive branch employees may not supplement their income in any way, and are subject to certain limits on de minimis gifts or entertainment.

  • there is a $20 aggregate limit per occasion
  • there is a $50 aggregate limit per year
  • other particular exceptions (e.g. widely attended gatherings, modest items of food and refreshment, opportunities and benefits that are generally available to the public, etc.), may be applied if all the necessary factors are in place (see the Office of Government Ethics for additional, complete information on this topic)

Political appointees within President Obama’s administration are also under an additional Executive Order that restricts gifts they can accept. Political appointees (of which Ms. Kagan is one), may not accept gifts from lobbyists. These political appointees may NOT use certain gift rule exceptions which are in place for other types of executive branch employees (see above, and the OGE’s site). Political appointees may not accept a meal, attendance, or entertainment at a lobbyist-sponsored event.

Political appointees in President Obama’s administration have also signed a pledge not to become lobbyists after their service in government.

The information in this post is condensed from Lobbyists.info’s Compliance Center. This ethics tip is accurate to the best of our knowledge, but please consult your counsel on specific questions.

Moves & Changes

Monday, May 10th, 2010 by Brittany

Here are some of the latest moves, changes and mergers in the government relations community. For weekly email updates of the latest moves and changes register for Wash Reps Weekly.

  • Molly Harris has joined Arent Fox as a government relations director in the firm’s Washington office. Harris was previously a legislative assistant in the office of Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.).
  • Holly Pitt Young has joined Aristotle, a political technology and grass-roots consulting company, as senior vice president of public affairs.
  • DC Law and lobbying firm Hogan and Hartson has officially merged with British firm Lovells to become Hogan Lovells US LLP.
  • Steve Crout is the new vice president of government affairs in Qualcomm’s D.C. office.
  • Lewis-Burke Associates has hired Julie Jolly to work on health, small-business and transportation policies at the government relations firm.

Weekly Lobbying News Round-Up

Friday, May 7th, 2010 by Vbhotla

Sen. Tester joins Sen. Bennet in sponsoring the Close the Revolving Door Act. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) announced this week that he would join Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) in his bill attempting to bar former Members of Congress from ever lobbying after their Congressional tenure. Sen. Tester’s press release is here.

Stayin’ fit and on top of their game: GR folks flock to the “Lobbyist Whisperer.Roll Call profiles Janet Zalman, a DC personal trainer popular with lobbyists. (Roll Call subscription required).

Mixed reactions to DISCLOSE Act. Last week’s disclosure (pun intended) of the campaign finance “Citizens United legislative fix” bill, the DISCLOSE Act, elicited mixed reactions. A few opposing views: The Center on Competitive Politics views the legislation as limiting to the First Amendment right of free speech. The White House released a statement from President Obama stating that he not only supports the legislation as necessary, but will help stump for its quick passage. A great collection of reactions to the bill is over at the Blog of Legal Times.

Abramoff figure back in town. Neil Volz, who fell from grace along with Jack Abramoff in 2005, was back in DC to discuss a new documentary on Abramoff’s career, Casino Jack & The United States of Money. The Washington Post profiles Mr. Volz’s new outlook on life post-Abramoff. (Washington Post free registration required).

Refreshing: Non-Citizens United Campaign Finance News

Thursday, May 6th, 2010 by Vbhotla

This week for our campaign finance update we’re taking a break from the Citizens United coverage. The FEC has adopted new rules for non-federal fundraising; these rules are a final implementation of requirements from 2002’s Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA / McCain-Feingold). The new rules were announced April 29.

BCRA states that federal candidates cannot solicit, receive, or spend “soft money.” The FEC had previously concluded based on the statute’s language that federal candidates may attend, be a featured guest, or speak at a state/local party fundraising event, without restriction on their actions at such an event; some argued that this left the door open for candidates and officeholders to solicit soft money at such events.

In several court cases, the FEC’s interpretation of the regulation was challenged; the courts  held that the FEC had failed to adequately explain and justify the rule, and the rule was invalidated.

The new rule from the FEC repeals the provision that permitted federal candidates to speak without restrictions at non-federal fundraising events.  The new rule makes clear that although the federal candidate or officeholder may attend such events, he or she may not solicit soft money contributions.

Oh, and I know I said no Citizens United-related news today, but I thought I should bring this post from Eric Brown’s Political Activity Law to your attention: DISCLOSE Act’s new requirements for lobbyist disclosure. Yes, there is something in that bill for everyone.

Is Lobbying a Family Business in Congress?

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010 by Vbhotla

When the Jack Abramoff scandal unfolded in 2005-2006, lobbyists’ previously unknown ties within Congress became one of the hottest topics in the media and as Congress considered its historic overhaul of lobbying regulations, this issue was at the forefront.

At that time, investigations by various media outlets reported dozens of lobbyists with relatives serving in Congress, some directly lobbying committees that their relatives sat on. So it was no surprise when HLOGA didn’t mince words in laying down the law regarding family connections between lobbyists & Congress.

HLOGA prohibits spouses of Senators from lobbying any Senate office. However, spouses who were serving as registered lobbyists at least one year before their marriage to an elected spouse, or before their spouse’s most recent election, are exempt. It also places limits on other family connections; Senators’ immediate family members who are registered lobbyists are not permitted to lobby that Senate office. The Act is succinct in its requirement that lobbyists refrain from using ‘family relationships to gain special advantages over other lobbyists’ in both houses of Congress.

So while Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)’s wife Lucy Calautti, a senior adviser at Baker & Hostetler,  is registered to lobby for the association America’s Health Insurance Plans, and for Major League  Baseball, she has not and may not lobby her husband’s office, whose committee assignments include agriculture, nutrition, budget, finance, Indian affairs and joint taxation.

The easy bashing that accompanies lobbyist-Member connections is often without solid proof of wrongdoing. Let’s face it: it is unrealistic to expect that Members’ relations will all disappear from the lobbying horizon, especially since it’s not an actual violation of the law. What’s realistic and much more useful is to gain a real understanding of the comprehensive laws for lobbying, and then look at who is following the law, and who is not.

Tuesday Ethics Tip: Cinco De Mayo Edition

Tuesday, May 4th, 2010 by Vbhotla

This week’s Ethics Tip preps you to have a great time tomorrow on Cinco de Mayo. Since everyone seems to embrace any sort of holiday around here (You’re probably not REALLY Irish, right? But you went to a pub on St. Patrick’s Day, didn’t you?) we’ve put together a short tipsheet on buying drinks for your favorite Congressional staffers at the bar this Cinco de Mayo.

Remember the gift rule: no lobbyist may offer any thing of value to a member of Congress or Congressional staffer. But there is an exception for food and drink of nominal value. The guidance is a little complicated, so stick with us here:

When can an item of food and drink of nominal value be offered by a lobbyist to a Member/staffer?

The recent interpretations by the House and Senate ethics committees would suggest some possible rules of thumb:

Drinks at the Bar – A Guide

Food / Beverages Offered Setting and Circumstances Senate Standard is food items from lobbyists and others valued at $10 or less and offered at an organized event, media interview or other appearance where such food items are normally offered to others House Standard is “group or social setting”
Pitcher of beer at the bar Spontaneous, accidental; no invitations, not a  planned event Probably, because it is drinks only, no food Yes, offered in a group, social setting
Pitcher of beer at the bar Emailed invitations to specific people:  “Meet at Tortilla Coast 5 to 7 on Thursday” Yes, because it is an “organized event” Yes, offered in a group, social setting
Bottle of wine at the bar Offered to anyone who wants a glass Probably, but only if no food and only if wine is of nominal value Yes, offered in a group, social setting and only if the wine is of nominal value
Bottle of wine at the bar Organized wine tasting, invitations sent to specific people Yes, provided the wine is of nominal value, because there is no food and it is an organized social event Yes, provided the wine is of nominal value
Margaritas and nachos Lobbyist pays check for everyone in the bar on Cinco de Mayo night Probably, but only if the nachos offered do not exceed $10 value Yes, offered in a group, social setting and nachos are light appetizers, not part of a meal
Margaritas and nachos Cinco de Mayo gathering organized by a certain group, lobbyist pays a share of the costs Yes, an organized social event akin to a reception, nachos are light appetizers, not part of a meal Yes, offered in a group, social setting, also organized event akin to a reception and nachos are light appetizers, not part of a meal

This information is covered in much more detail at Lobbyists.info’s Compliance Center, and in our Lobbying Compliance Handbook. Check it out!

Rep. Quigley’s Transparency Bill – UPDATED

Monday, May 3rd, 2010 by Vbhotla

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) recently released a bill designed to increase transparency in the U.S. Congress and in other branches of government. The Transparency in Government Act – H.R. 4983 – includes a change to the reporting requirements for federally registered lobbyists.

Some provisions of the bill include: (from Rep. Quigley’s press release on the bill)

  • Establishing new definitions for lobbyists and stricter rules governing how and with whom they meet
  • Creating a searchable, sortable, and downloadable database for earmarks, where taxpayers can see all appropriations in one place
  • Improving public access to information about members of Congress, including disclosure of financial information, travel reports, gifts, and earmark requests
  • Requiring committees to post all roll call votes and video of hearings and mark-ups online
  • Improving oversight and accuracy of USAspending.gov (federal contracting Web site) by allowing the public to report errors and requiring audits of the information on the site
  • Instructing all FOIA requests of federal agencies be published online promptly after they are completed

The change that would be biggest for current lobbyists is a potential shorter turnaround for disclosure reporting. The bill as it currently stands would require a 72-hour turnaround on registration, would could create significant paperwork problems for some lobbyists. When GAO released their LDA Disclosure Audit, they noted that some lobbyists complained that the time for paperwork preparation was already insufficient as it stands now. UPDATED: The phrase that we originally posted, “72-hour turnaround on reporting” was misleading. The bill actually would require lobbyists to register within 72 hours of their first lobbying contact, rather than having the option to wait up to 45 days, as the law currently stands. This is a registration requirement, not a reporting requirement. We apologize for the error.

The bill also requires a study by the Comptroller General of the GAO to determine whether “non-lobbyists” (who are engaging in either lobbying under the 20% time threshold, or not directly lobbying members of Congress) should be registering. The legislation’s language suggests that its framers are suspicious of lobbyists de-registering:

“Whether and to what extent persons exerting substantial influence on the legislative process and executive branch decisionmaking are avoiding the registration and reporting requirements under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995.”

It remains to be seen whether this bill will gain any traction (it is currently sitting in the House Oversight and Government Reform, Rules,  House Administration, and Judiciary Committees).  But given the Democrats’ and Obama Administrations’ emphasis on ethics and transparency, further action may be likely.

As an interesting aside,  Rep. Quigley discusses his new transparency bill and the role of lobbyists in the political process in a National Journal interview on May 1,

Quigley: “Lobbyists aren’t a bad thing. I respect that every interest has a right to be represented on the Hill by lobbyists. I tell my constituents, you may not like the pharmaceutical lobbyist or the tobacco lobbyist, but your school system has someone here, and the cancer society has someone here. People don’t understand that lobbyists advocate, educate, and inform — and that is super-important. I can hire a great staff, but lobbyists have some of the best information.”

The National Journal article is posted here (subscription required).