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."

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Nancy Watzman