With roots in Republican politics and corporate public relations, FLS-DCI and its sister companies have become a one-stop political shop. They have handled phone calls for the Bush campaign, lobbied the White House for corporate clients, and, through the separate-but-affiliated group Progress for America, lobbied the public on behalf of the White House.
During the 2004 election cycle, FLS-DCI served as telemarketers for the Bush campaign, House and Senate candidates in 23 states, taking in more than $26.9 million, according to a Center study of federal filings.[correction] In the political off-season, however, the affiliated DCI Group lobbies for corporations looking to influence politicians and the public.
The partners have a long history in politics.
Tony Feather served as executive director of the Missouri Republican Party from 1987 until 1990, when he left to manage the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign of the state's then-Attorney General William L. Webster. The candidacy was marred by word of a federal investigation that ultimately resulted in Webster serving a two-year prison term for using state employees and equipment for his campaign. Feather went on to become Midwest Regional Coordinator for the Republican National Committee, in 1993.
Thomas J. Synhorst's background includes working on campaigns for Sen. Charles Grassley and serving as senior advisor to Sen. Bob Dole through 1996. In 1999, Feather joined Synhorst, Jeffrey T. Larson and a fourth partner, Chris Hodges, to form Feather Hodges Larson & Synhorst, later known as FLS-DCI.
Feather served as political director to the Bush-Cheney campaign for the presidential race in 2000. Today, to comply with the McCain-Feingold Act, the partners have created two divisions. Larson runs the state and national party division in Minnesota, while Feather heads up FLS' federal candidate division from Missouri (he currently is working with the Republican National Committee on congressional campaigns, according to The Washington Post).
The DCI Group, formed in 1997, is primarily a lobbying firm. Synhorst is its chairman. Feather worked as a lobbyist for the firm from 2001 through 2005.
Feather also founded the group Progress for America in 2001 with James K. Glassman, former part-owner and editor of Roll Call, serving as its national chair. According to information posted on the group's Web site in 2001, it was formed as a "grassroots organization dedicated to supporting Pres. George Bush's agenda for America." Feather reportedly left the group before the 2004 election, and Glassman says he headed the group "very briefly, but I haven't had anything to do with it in years."
By 2004, Progress for America had become a Republican issue-ad powerhouse, including among its officers and directors a series of DCI lobbyists — Chris LaCivita (who also consulted for the anti-John Kerry 527 committee Swift Boat Veterans for Truth), Brian Kennedy and the group's current president Brian S. McCabe. In 2004, Progress for America paid DCI Group more than $800,000 for consulting services.
Synhorst also reportedly consulted for Progress for America, and two companies of which he is a principal — FYI Messaging and TSE Enterprises — brought in $2.8 million from the group for direct mail, phone contact, e-mail, and Web site services.
The two companies received about $370,000 for services to Republican candidates and party committees.
Progress for America turned out some of the most influential ads of the Bush campaign, including "Ashley's Story," featuring a 16-year-old girl who had lost her mother in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The group also produced ads touting each of Bush's Supreme Court nominees; in the case of Harriet Miers' 24 day candidacy, it led the public relations effort, launching a Web site, www.justicemiers.com, and offering to set up interviews with friends of Miers on the day of her nomination.
The New York Times reported that Progress for America members attended strategy meetings with Bush administration officials regarding the president's Social Security plan, and the group has run ads this year supporting the Iraq war. In the first three months of this year, Progress for America paid DCI about $560,000 for consulting services, according to information filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
In recent years, the DCI Group and its Tech Central Station division have become more famous for public relations campaigns that appeared to come from somewhere else. In 2003, Washington Monthly writer Nicholas Confessore described the pieces posted on Tech Central Station's Web site as lobbying disguised as news, coining the term "journo-lobbying."
One sponsor of the site — McDonald's — has found itself the beneficiary of an ongoing Tech Central Station campaign to debunk the Morgan Spurlock documentary about fast food called Supersize Me.
The campaign included opinion pieces penned by Glassman, the Web site's founder and "host," that were published in major newspapers. One of them, St. Louis' Post-Dispatch, took issue with Glassman for not disclosing that McDonald's was a TCS sponsor. Glassman told the Post-Dispatch that he had never been paid by McDonald's and that writing about the movie was not a conflict of interest. In a telephone interview for this report, Glassman told the Center that neither DCI Group nor the Web site's sponsors had influenced his writing.
At least one client, Avue Technologies Corp., has agreed with Confessore's assessment. In a February lawsuit over a contract disagreement, Avue's lawyer described the goal of the company's sponsorship of Tech Central Station as "to generate favorable publicity about Avue's products and services and to fund the creation of positive 'news' stories that purported to be the work of independent journalists." To clear up any doubt, the brief continues, "This type of 'news' creation is sometimes referred to as 'journo-lobbying.'"
Court filings by each company indicate that Avue had paid DCI $150,000 to sponsor Tech Central Station from December 2003 through August 2004.
Glassman said he was unaware of the lawsuit against DCI, because "my relationship is only with TCS, not DCI."
"But that is not the way TCS does business," he said. "TCS is a very transparent organization as far as our support is concerned. … We list our sponsors and advertisers online and make sure people can see it."
As for FLS-DCI, it has undergone another name change, to FLS-Connect. The company and its affiliates are providing fundraising, mail, and phone bank services in state and national elections this year, making at least $14 million so far from state and national Republican party committees, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, a subscription service offering campaign finance data.
Correction: Since publishing the database of spending on campaign consultants Sept. 26, 2006, the Center identified additional payments to Feather Larson Synhorst, increasing its total from $21 million to $26.9 million.