No longer on staff

Former government aides join state lobbying ranks

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WolfBlock Government Relations touts the success of its employees "in this specialized field of Pennsylvania politics" on its Web site. It's not surprising the firm knows how to get results for its clients from the state government: of the six lobbyists with online profiles, five worked as staffers in the state legislature or the governor's office. The sixth member is a former legislator.

Through its six-month investigation of state legislators-turned-lobbyists, the Center for Public Integrity found not only ex-lawmakers cashing in on legislative experience, but government staffers who also moved into private advocacy positions.

Former Michigan Republican House speaker and current lobbyist Rick Johnson told the Center that ex-legislative staffers are probably more powerful and more plentiful in the state lobbying corps than former legislators.

"It's a big deal in term-limited states," Johnson said, because "the staff can be really more influential ... Legislators have a short time to learn, then they're gone. The staffers stick around a while. People say there should be a two-year ban for legislators before they go into lobbying — if you're going to do it for legislators, you should do it for staff."

While a few states prohibit legislative staffers from immediately returning to lobby the statehouse, most do not.

One staffer-turned-lobbyist is David K. Shapiro, who served as budget director of the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee and policy advisor to the committee's Democratic chairman, Tom Finneran, who would later serve as speaker. He now represents more than 20 clients, and his bio notes that he "was responsible for drafting and defending the state's $17 billion program budget and acted as chief negotiator on programs and fiscal policies with more than 130 state agencies."

Shapiro's firm, Holland & Knight, operates in several states and employs many former government staffers.

In Wisconsin, working for the Hamilton Consulting Group is Patrick J. Osborne, whose experience includes being legislative liaison and interim chief of staff to former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson and serving in state agencies. Two of his four co-workers also have experience in the legislature and state bureaucracies. He currently lobbies on behalf of clients that include health insurance companies and a builders association, among others.

In West Virginia, Steptoe & Johnson is a large international law firm, which had five registered lobbyists in that state in 2005. Three of them spent time working in state government, including George E. Carenbauer, who had worked for Democrats Gov. John D. Rockefeller IV and U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd. He also chaired Bill Clinton's presidential campaigns in the state and the state Democratic Party. In 2005, his lobbying clients included a customer service outsourcing company and an online university.

In Nebraska, the lobbying shop Ruth Mueller Robak LLC was co-founded by Bill Mueller, who worked for former Republican U.S. Rep. Charles Thone in the 1970s. Mueller's wife, Kim Robak, also a lobbyist with the firm, was chief of staff to Democratic then-Gov. Ben Nelson and served as the state's lieutenant governor for six years.

Mueller acknowledged that staffers-turned-lobbyists gain an advantage.

"Do relationships matter? Sure they do. Relationships get you access," he said. "But once you get that access, you still have to convince that elected official that the position you're advocating is good public policy."

Not much of a wait for staff

At least five states prohibit legislative staffers from immediately returning to lobby the statehouse, though about half of the states prohibit legislators from doing so.

Alabama and Florida ban staffers for two years, just like their lawmakers. And in Massachusetts, Ohio and Rhode Island staffers cannot lobby for one year, which is also equal to their cooling-off periods for legislators. Another handful of states have some looser restrictions on former government employees seeking to influence their old employers.

According to Bill Bozarth, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Georgia, when state lawmakers there were working on ethics legislation that included a revolving door provision banning legislators from lobbying for a year after they left office, there was a push to extend that ban to staffers.

"The question was, 'Where do you draw the line?'" Bozarth said, adding that legislators were aiming to restrict staffers earning above a certain amount from lobbying for one year after leaving their position. "Obviously, someone making $10,000 for six months of work, someone who's basically an intern, is not where there's a potential compromise of public interest."

In the end, Bozarth said, the effort to create a waiting period for staffers proved unsuccessful. However, beginning in 2007 former Georgia legislators are prohibited from lobbying for a year.

"As it often goes in government, we can't agree on how to do it," so nothing happens, he said. "But you have to take your progress in increments."

Robert Highsmith, former aide to Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, is currently a lobbyist with the firm Holland & Knight. He said working for the governor and lobbying for private clients is very similar in the preparation of testimony and talking to legislators.

But it's easier when a lobbyist has had previous experience as a staffer, he said. "The legislative process is complex … [and as an ex-staffer] you already know the rules, and the unwritten rules."

Highsmith says his clients appreciate the perk of his previous experience, too.

"It gives clients some comfort that you've been there and you've done it," he said.

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