Center wins first Pulitzer!

Black lung investigation honored

Get more award-winning investigations:

Lobbying the White House

Campaign donors and former government officials help 4,600 companies influence the executive branch

By

 Updated:

Not many companies change their names to accommodate a recent hire, but not every new employee has the standing of Kirk Blalock. In a town where influence is predicated on who you know, Blalock's connections are a conspicuously valuable commodity. As special assistant to the president, he often counseled George W. Bush and crafted political strategies with now-Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. And as deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, he coordinated the Bush administration's outreach to the business community—a role that gave him unique stature along Washington, D.C.'s K Street corridor.

Perhaps that's why in October 2003, just 11 months after Blalock left public service for Fierce & Isakowitz, the 25-year-old lobbying shop made him a name partner. It proved to be a profitable decision: Since Blalock's arrival, the firm has nearly doubled its annual revenue to more than $6 million, with its new marquee partner involved in much of the business. In fact, during Blalock's freshman year at what is now Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock, he personally registered to lobby on behalf of 33 clients. Of those, more than 20* listed the White House as a lobbying target.

Blalock was part of a team that lobbied the White House for the American Forest & Paper Association in support of the Healthy Forests Initiative, a legislative plan that was billed as a common-sense way to reduce the threat of destructive wildfires. The proposal was applauded by Blalock's timber-business client as a way to address the "crisis" facing the nation's federal forests, but roundly criticized by environmental organizations as being a mere giveaway to the timber industry. On Dec. 3, 2003, over the vehement protests of those environmentalists, President Bush signed the Healthy Forests Restoration Act into law.

Lobbying the White House, as the American Forest and Paper Association did in that legislative fight, has become an increasingly preferred tactic in Washington. More than one in five of those lobbying the federal government since 1998 have lobbied the offices of the White House, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity. More than 4,600 companies, trade associations and interest groups have directly lobbied the 14 offices of the White House, including those of the president and vice president. In fact, over the past seven years, the White House has been lobbied by more parties than have the Federal Communications Commission and the departments of Education and Veterans Affairs combined.

From Pennsylvania Avenue to K Street and back

Because industry profits can be affected by agency budgets, executive orders and federal regulations, many lobbying firms are now employing veteran ex-White House officials like Blalock who can navigate the halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Indeed, a new Center analysis reveals that 273 former White House staffers registered as lobbyists since 1998. Collectively, this analysis shows, these lobbyists have represented more than 3,000 special interests. They have been personally involved in billings worth approximately $1 billion—or as much as 10 percent of all federal lobbying since 1998.

"It can be alleged that they can leverage their contact base and knowledge base to help out clients," Bertram J. Levine, co-author of a book about lobbyists, told the Center. Most lobbying can be beneficial, he added, even though it may involve inherent conflicts of interest. "If there is any problem in the way that this is done," Levine said, "the problem would reside with the policymakers and how they do their jobs."

Sometimes these new lobbyists work on the same issues and legislation that occupied them during their White House tenure. Consider, for example, Alexander "Sandy" Kress, a former education advisor to President George W. Bush who was the primary architect of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

These days Kress is a lobbyist for Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP, the powerhouse global law firm. According to his disclosure forms, which must be filed with the House and Senate semiannually, Kress was part of a duo who lobbied the White House on education for some of the companies that have benefited handsomely from the law he helped create.He has lobbied for NCS Pearson Inc., which has received millions from the testing mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act. He also lobbied for Kumon North America—one of the world's largest providers of supplemental education, which has seen greater demand for its services with the passage of this law.

In some cases, however, the familiar "revolving door" has swung in reverse, sending denizens of K Street to the White House.

Andrew Card, the president's chief of staff, previously lobbied on issues like product liability for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. Similarly, Philip Cooney, former chief of staff of the President's Council on Environmental Quality, lobbied for the American Petroleum Institute (he resigned his post last June after revelations that he had altered national climate-change reports and will soon be heading for a position with ExxonMobil). And there is Edwina Rogers, who was a lobbyist for NASSCOM (India's IT trade association) before working as associate director for the White House's National Economic Council. Then, in 2004, Rogers left government to lobby for the Erisa Industry Committee, which represents the interests of employers in matters relating to retirement, pensions, health care and other worker benefits.

All told, the Center identified 12 former registered lobbyists who have been hired to work in the various offices of the White House—sometimes formulating public policy about the various issues on which they once lobbied. Similarly, the Center found that the Bush administration appointed 92 lobbyists to its transition advisory teams between 2000 and 2001.

Pioneers of the West Wing

Not surprisingly, large campaign contributors are often among those employing well-connected lobbyists in hopes of influencing the White House. PricewaterhouseCoopers, one of the largest donors to the Bush-Cheney re-election effort, retained Cheney's former press secretary in 2002 to lobby on corporate accountability legislation brought before the Office of the Vice President.

The Center found 52 registered lobbyists who were major fundraisers for the Bush campaigns. These "bundlers" include so-called Mavericks (who raised $50,000), Pioneers (who raised $100,000) and Rangers (who raised $200,000). The donations gathered by each fundraiser were tabulated with "Solicitor Tracking Numbers" assigned by the campaigns—a way to insure that each fundraiser received due credit for the donations he or she collected. Such tracking numbers appear on disclosure forms signed by lobbyists Wayne Berman of Federalist Group, Thomas Loeffler of The Loeffler Group and David Metzner of American Continental Group Inc., all of whom pledged to raise $250,000 for Bush.

Embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff raised $100,000 for Bush's 2004 campaign as a Pioneer and represented 15 clients that were lobbying the White House, including such business enterprises as Tyco International Ltd. and Unisys Corp. Abramoff is also listed among those lobbying the Executive Office of the President and the White House on behalf of three American Indian tribes, including the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe and the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians.

There are also hundreds of Bush Mavericks, Pioneers and Rangers working for companies that lobbied the federal government since Bush was inaugurated in 2001. Their ranks include Blalock, who already had close connections to Bush after leaving the White House. As a Pioneer, Blalock raised $100,000 for the president's re-election.

While Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock can legitimately trade on the currency of Blalock's White House experience, the firm didn't disclose his previous employment there on more than a year's worth of lobbying forms. Congressional rules require that such positions be detailed on all lobbying disclosure forms for two years following the termination of that employment. But none of the 92 pages that mention Blalock's name from 2002-2003 fulfill this requirement.