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Plugging In to D.C.

Lobbyist William A. "Art" Roberts and his wife, Roselee, also a lobbyist, own a rather special blue-and-white nineteenth-century Chinese porcelain bowl, once the property of Jacqueline Onassis. They bid $4,000 for it two years ago at the Sotheby's auction of Jackie O's personal possessions, where Art took Roselee to celebrate her birthday. It was really a mistake--Roselee thought she'd been waving "no" with her paddle. But she wasn't sorry. "The catalogue said the bowl had been in the Kennedys' Georgetown home. Now it will be in our Georgetown home," Roselee told the Washington Post's gossip column at the time. "I guess I'd better start planning a proper homecoming for it." Art joked that the buying fervor was so high at the auction that someone offered to buy his presidential cufflinks, which he'd gotten from President Bill Clinton, not Kennedy.

If you're an Aurora taxpayer, you helped pay for that Jackie O bowl. Or, rather, you helped pay the salary that made an accidental $4,000 purchase of a bowl something the Robertses could well afford to joke about.

Art Roberts is the group CEO of government relations for the Jefferson Group, a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm that has been paid $309,322 by the City of Aurora since 1994. It's Roberts who signs the firm's monthly reports to the city, though staffers Mark Greenberg, in D.C., and Greg Romberg, a contract employee in Denver, do most of the day-to-day work. Aurora first hired the Jefferson Group to fight the proposed closure of Fitzsimons Army Medical Center. When the federal government axed the med center anyway, Aurora kept the Jefferson Group in its budget. Now the firm's job is to find and attract new sources of federal money for the facility. But it has a grab bag of other tasks, from securing funds for infrastructure updates at Buckley Air National Guard Base to informing the city on the status of federal legislation on collective bargaining for municipal employees.

Aurora mayor Paul Tauer says the firm has been "very successful" and has been instrumental in planning to transform Fitzsimons into a bioscience research park.

"They helped us identify key people to go talk to in the process of developing the plan," says Tauer. "They've been successful in helping us identify grant moneys and to help expedite grant moneys." In October, when Clinton signed a HUD/VA budget that included half a million dollars for the research park, the Jefferson Group promptly took credit.

D.C. lobbyists are increasingly insinuating themselves into the budgets of local governments in Colorado. Aurora City Councilman John Paroske doesn't think that's such a good idea.

"They get themselves very much entrenched in particular issues," Paroske says. "They start up with a particular project limited to this thing or that thing. In the end, they seem to make themselves indispensable; all of a sudden, they're part of the annual budget process."

Lines blur between who works for the city and who doesn't. Says Greenberg, "When I walk into a Colorado office, they see me as an extension of Aurora. They don't look at me as a hired gun. I'm someone who deals with the mayor and the city council on a regular basis. You become an informal conduit for all sorts of stuff."

Is it reasonable for a city to have to hire D.C. lobbyists to do such things as set up meetings between the city's officials and Colorado's members of Congress?

"It's kind of a crazy world when one local government has to pay somebody for another government entity to listen to it," says Paroske. "It seems like the whole system is out of kilter."

According to federal lobbying disclosure records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a D.C.-based watchdog group, several Colorado cities and government entities have firms on contract. Among them are the City of Denver, Colorado Springs, Greenwood Village, Montrose, Douglas County, the State of Colorado Transportation Department, the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the Lower Colorado River Association and the Denver metro area's Regional Transportation District. Altogether, according to federal records and interviews with Colorado officials, Colorado entities spent at least $1.2 million in 1997 on firms that listed local governments as lobbying clients. In turn, these firms and their employees gave nearly $2 million to federal campaigns and political parties nationwide between 1995 and 1997.

Of course, many cities across the U.S. hire lobbying firms to represent them before Congress and federal agencies. Experts say the reason is obvious. "It's probably directly proportional to the degree of the decline of the [federal] budget," says Donald Haider, a professor of management at the J.L. Kellogg School at Northwestern University and the author of a book on local-government lobbying. "Grants and aid [to local governments] have declined as a percent of the budget since the late Seventies. As the budget decreases, the more claimants rush in."  

Albuquerque, Houston, Seattle, Austin, St. Louis, Salt Lake City, Pittsburgh and New Orleans all hired lobbying firms in 1997, according to the CRP. Some large cities--Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston--have their own full-time lobbyists with offices in the nation's capital. Cities that don't hire lobbying firms tend to be small or poor, or both. Greeley, Pueblo, Dillon, Golden--none of these Colorado cities hired Washington lobbying firms in 1997, according to the CRP. Nor did Boise, Helena or Biloxi.

There are some cases, though, in which the decision not to hire D.C. lobbying firms is a conscious one. While the City of Boise has hired firms on occasion for specific tasks, the Idaho capital does not have an ongoing contract with any firm. "We rely on the lobbying ability of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and, frankly, on personal relationships with our [congressional] delegation," says Suzanne Burton, public-information officer for Boise. "There's never been the feeling that it's worth the money. Using tax funds that way is sometimes hard to explain to the public."

But in Colorado and many other states, hiring out for lobbying is considered the pragmatic thing to do. "It's like contracting out for your trash hauling--you're contracting out for your lobbyists," says Ronald Shaiko, associate professor of government at American University in Washington and director of the school's Lobbying Institute.

Of course, lobbying is at least as lucrative as garbage collecting. In Washington, a town whose main product is legislation, lobbying is a major industry. The top fifty lobbyists in Washington earn a total of about $125 million a year, and the amount earned by all independent lobbyists is probably triple that number, according to The Washingtonian magazine. Salaries for a top lobbyist can run in the many hundreds of thousands of dollars. Unlike trash haulers, who must sell their services based on their efficiency in removing garbage, lobbyists sell something more ephemeral: their relationships.

Lobbyists insist that it's vital to have someone familiar do the arm-twisting of politicians. "Most of the people who come to the Jefferson Group," says the firm's Mark Greenberg, "worked on the Hill for a long time, worked in the administration a long time. They know the players." The cast of characters hired by Colorado cities and government groups include a former Clinton White House aide, an ex-staffer for the House Appropriations Committee and a former Colorado congressman, Ray Kogovsek.

It's by talking up the Washington game that only they know how to play that lobbyists get their business--not just from local governments, but also from a long list of corporate clients. Portraying Washington as something like the ritual-rich court of King Louis XIV pays off handsomely. So does acting as social director or tour guide. When Aurora's city councilmembers travel to Washington for National League of Cities meetings, it's the Jefferson Group that takes them around to meetings at Colorado congressional delegation offices. When the Fitzsimons Redevelopment Authority and University of Colorado Health Sciences Center officials visited the capital in February 1997, the Jefferson Group "worked to ensure that the meeting rooms, dining and transportation requirements were met," according to the firm's monthly progress report to the city.

Colorado officials may need help getting a meeting with an obscure federal official at an even more obscure federal agency. But do they really need a Washington lobbying firm to get them face time with their own representatives in Congress?

"They do not, period," says Lisa Cohen, chief of staff for Congresswoman Diana DeGette, a Democrat from Denver. Cohen says her boss doesn't need a go-between to set up meetings with local-government officials. "From the moment the congresswoman has taken office, she's reached out to the public and private groups within her district," says Cohen.

Nevertheless, in 1997 DeGette was the target of much of the Jefferson Group's lobbying. The firm claimed credit for arranging a series of meetings and phone calls between Aurora officials and DeGette to plan meetings with other members of Congress and a tour of Fitzsimons.

Many Colorado officials say that hiring lobbying firms is a necessity and provides a good return on the tax dollar.

"It's especially important that cities with large national hubbing airports be adequately represented in Congress to be sure we get our fair share of airport monies," says Lee Marable, Denver's chief counsel for airport legal services. "Airlines themselves probably outspend local governments ten to one. It's important to keep that balance, as a democratic issue."

The City of Denver paid Capital Partnerships Inc. $150,000 in 1997 to, among other things, "recommend and implement strategic visits of key Denver representatives to advance communications of information to senior Hill personnel," according to its contract. Translation: The city wanted Capital Partnerships to convince Congress to overturn a ban on funding a sixth runway at DIA. Also on contract with the City of Denver and paid $217,878 in 1997 is the firm Morrison & Foerster, which is representing Denver on airline rates and charges in a proceeding before the Federal Aviation Administration. Federal lobbying disclosure records show a half-dozen more firms on the city's payroll: Arter & Hadden, Friedlob Sanderson, Greenberg Traurig, Patton Boggs, Price Howlett and Reid & Priest. Altogether, the city spent nearly $939,000 on these firms in 1997.  

Even the suburbs feel they need high-priced help. Greenwood Village sought help from Washington firms on another airport issue, keeping commercial flights out of Centennial Airport. City Manager Steve Crowell says the rich southside suburb hired Cutler & Stanfield to do public relations and Baker Donelson to handle legal work. (When the city hired these firms, it dropped its previous contract with Kogovsek & Associates.) Crowell defends the hirings. "That's really what it takes to get those kinds of issues coordinated," he says. "It took an act of Congress to get this bill changed."

Greenwood Village is also contributing money to Douglas County's contract with Capital Partnerships, which got $85,000 in 1997 and is now on a $5,000-a-month retainer to lobby for the county on the mammoth $214 billion highway bill that's wending its way through Congress. Douglas County's main goal: a $9 million expansion of I-25. "The county feels it's important to have someone on the ground in Washington instead of sending someone out there repeatedly," says Kristin French, a public-information officer for the county. Capital Partnerships was "instrumental," says French, in securing a local champion, U.S. Representative Joel Hefley, a Colorado Springs Republican, to push for the funding as well as lobbying other members of Congress.

"One vote is not enough to get the work done in Washington, D.C.," says French. "It took a great amount of work to bring it to the attention of the Appropriations Committee--they're faced with thousands of projects."

Hefley's office says Capital Partnerships' help wasn't just appreciated--it was needed. "Congressman Hefley had quite an extensive personal contact with [Douglas County] Commissioner [Michael] Cook on the issue," says Hefley spokeswoman Leigh LaMora. "But had it not been for Capital Partnerships, we may not have received as much money for the project, just because there are so many issues we have to cover here on transportation. On behalf of Douglas County, they did a terrific job."

And Capital Partnerships obviously thinks highly of Hefley, too. In the lobbying firm's dealings with Hefley and others, that backslapping also includes some campaign cash.

Most of the lobbying firms hired by Colorado cities strategically give to political campaigns. Kenneth Butler, a lobbyist with Capital Partnerships, gave out $18,700 to candidates and political action committees between 1995 and 1997, Of this amount, $6,000 went to House Transportation Committee chairman Bud Shuster, the Pennsylvania Republican who is the most powerful member of Congress when it comes to doling out transportation projects. The bulk of the rest went to members of the House and Senate Transportation and Appropriations committees.

And $1,000 went to House member Hefley, who has proved so helpful in fighting for Douglas County's I-25 expansion. ("It doesn't make any difference as far as Congressman Hefley is concerned," says LaMora. "[Contributions] would have no impact on any decision on any project.")

Overall, the lobbying firms hired by Colorado cities and government entities distributed $1.9 million to federal candidates and parties between 1995 and 1997.

Contributions aren't limited to members of Congress. In some cases, these lobbyists also give money, though not necessarily large amounts, to the city officials responsible for hiring them. Greg Romberg, who works on contract for the Jefferson Group in Denver, and his wife, Laurene, gave Aurora mayor Tauer $50 for his 1995 campaign. "We made the contribution because there was a big event and we went to it," says Romberg. "I don't think that participation in that event had anything to do with us retaining the contract." Romberg and the Jefferson Group have also made contributions to Denver mayor Wellington Webb and several members of the Denver City Council--a total of $3,600 since 1994.

Tauer sounds positively insulted when asked about the Rombergs' contribution. "Fifty dollars out of $50,000--is that going to influence me? No! I had a lot of people who gave me $50. That doesn't mean I do everything they want," he says. "It's a real stretch."

Employees of Patton Boggs, Price Howlett and Reid & Priest--all on contract with the City of Denver--have also contributed to Denver campaigns. They've given at least $18,293 since 1994, according to city records.  

But even small contributions do well at maintaining connections. Donor lists give politicians an idea of who's on board and who isn't.

Not all congressional offices, however, talk about lobbyists on hire by governments in such cozy terms as those used by Hefley's staff. On one recent day, a beleaguered congressional staffer complained of receiving several phone calls in a single morning on the same issue from a series of lobbyists all hired by the same Colorado city. The office would have taken action, the staffer says, simply based on the first call--which was from a government official, not a lobbyist.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell insists that he's swayed only by government officials--not by lobbyists.

"There's this implication that local governments must hire professional lobbyists [to get attention]," says Campbell. "I don't even see them. They're not the ones that make the initial request. Government officials seem to be saying that, if they had their druthers, they wouldn't have to spend money on federal lobbyists. If they believe that, they shouldn't."

Campbell, a Republican who sits on the Senate Appropriations Committee, says he refused to meet with the Jefferson Group when its lobbyists asked, but he did help Aurora with funding for its new bioscience center after a meeting with the city's mayor. "We helped," says Campbell, "but it was not for [the Jefferson Group], it was for Paul Tauer. Mayor Tauer was the one who asked me."

Nevertheless, in justifying its existence on the city's payroll, the Jefferson Group claimed credit for planning a meeting in August 1997 between Tauer and Campbell. The lobbying firm later reported in its regular update to the city that "TJG...arranged a meeting with Senator Campbell to discuss city issues...We briefed both the mayor and the senator's staff about issues prior to the meeting on August 26." In November the lobbying firm reported that Campbell's work in October proved "instrumental in obtaining funds."

What the firm didn't say was that four of its employees, including Art Roberts, had given Campbell campaign contributions in October, all on the same date, totaling $1,188. When asked about this confluence of events, Campbell takes umbrage. "There's no rule or regulation about when or who or how [the lobbyists] give," the senator says. "The fact of the matter is that whether they are there or not, I'm not going to do anything unless Paul Tauer asks me."

Still, between 1995 and 1997, the Jefferson Group gave Campbell more than any other member of the Colorado delegation: $2,688 all told. Not that the Jefferson Group has limited its generosity to Campbell. Overall, between 1995 and 1997, the firm's PAC and employees contributed $109,300 to federal candidates and parties, including nearly $7,000 to members of the Colorado delegation.

The web of connections and contributions that binds politicians to lobbyists raises questions even among some lobbyists.

"Just because that's the way it's been done doesn't mean it's right," says Jim Seeley, director of the City of Los Angeles's lobbying office in Washington. A city employee, he says he uses that fact as an excuse not to contribute to campaigns when members of Congress ask him. "That's the thing that seduces some cities," he says. "When businessmen or -women become city officials, their experience is, that's how you get something done: You have to contribute to get attention. Maybe they get it done faster, to the public good. But there's a tradeoff here."

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