Revolving Door Snags Hill Aide

Taylor Staffer Negotiated Lobby Contract While on House Payroll

Posted March 3, 2004 at 6:30pm

For 13 years, Roger France dutifully served as top aide to Rep. Charles Taylor, assisting the powerful Republican Appropriations cardinal in steering federal dollars to the hard-hit mountain region of the Congressman’s North Carolina district.

But shortly before France left Taylor’s staff last month to become a lobbyist, he negotiated a $60,000 contract to represent a nonprofit economic development group with strong political ties to Taylor. Just two months earlier, France had helped the nonprofit win control over a $750,000 appropriations project earmarked by Taylor.

AdvantageWest, a state-chartered, nonprofit public-private partnership that promotes economic development, has never used an outside lobbyist in the 10 years since it was created. It has relied on an in-house government relations staffer and the extensive ties of the business people who serve on its board to network with government officials.

A number of AdvantageWest officials have contributed to Taylor’s campaign, and the organization touts his accomplishments on its Web site.

Both France and AdvantageWest officials confirmed that negotiations took place while France was still on the House payroll. But the contract, they said, has not been executed, pending a board meeting set for today.

According to an e-mail obtained by Roll Call dated Feb. 10 that was sent through France’s mail account in the House, the staffer and AdvantageWest were in discussions over the terms of a contract that would pay France $5,000 a month plus up to $300 in monthly expenses in exchange for his lobbying services.

It is unclear when those discussions actually began. Both France and AdvantageWest officials declined to provide a specific date. An unsigned draft contract, dated Feb. 15, was attached to the e-mail.

France officially left Taylor’s payroll on Feb. 13 to join the lobbying firm headed by former House Appropriations Chairman Bob Livingston (R-La). He plans to lobby under the Livingston Group’s umbrella with his own company, Keep the Change LLC, a firm France set up in Florida in November 2002, according to incorporation records.

“Dear Roger — Pursuant to the discussions we have had to date, we are submitting for your approval, terms of a working agreement between AdvantageWest and Keep The Change, LLC,” according to a letter attached to the Feb. 10 e-mail.

The letter was addressed to France at the Livingston Group’s office in Washington.

“I trust this accurately reflects the discussion we had,” said the letter, in reference to the contract’s $5,000 monthly fee. “If you agree, please sign below and return one original to me.” The AdvantageWest official who wrote the letter is not identified.

“I’m talking to a lot of people now that I am out,” France said when contacted about the e-mail last week “A lot of proposals get made, I don’t know how you got that,” he said, referring to the e-mail and draft contract.

France added that the e-mail had been “inadvertently” sent to dozens of individuals, both on and off Capitol Hill.

“This town is full of former Members of Congress and former staff people who are doing work, one small piece of which may relate to something they have done before,” said France. “And a lot of it may relate to stuff they haven’t done before.

“I just find it hard to believe that Roll Call thinks it is newsworthy that a now-former staff member is trying to get some business so he can eat.”

House ethics rules require departing lawmakers and staff who are seeking employment to be mindful of the potential conflicts of interest and legal implications that could arise during a job search.

The revolving door problem has been highlighted recently by Rep. Billy Tauzin’s (R-La.) on-again, off-again talks with two major trade groups that had business before the Energy and Commerce Committee that Tauzin chaired until last month.

“Departing staff may not allow the prospect of future employment to affect their official actions,” the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct warned in a 2002 memo.

Under the Ethics Reform Act of 1989, House Members, officers and employees are generally prohibited from asking for anything of value from a broad range of persons: specifically, anyone who seeks official action from the House, does business with the House, or has interests which may be substantially affected by the performance of official duties.

According to a 1997 House ethics committee advisory memo, “The terms of the prohibition are very broad. The provision applies to the solicitation of not only money, but ‘anything of value.’ In addition, the prohibition covers solicitations of things for the personal benefit of the Member, officer or employee, as well as things which involve no personal benefit.”

Ken Gross, an ethics and campaign finance lawyer, noted that “people are certainly able to seek jobs, cashing in on their background and experience on the Hill.”

But he added that “if there is evidence of this person working as a staffer on legislation that would especially benefit this company while he is talking to them about going to work for them, that would be troubling.”

France, who is barred by federal law from contacting Taylor on behalf of clients for one year, said that he intended to lobby on behalf of AdvantageWest on appropriations issues. He said he initiated the discussions with AdvantageWest.

“As far as working with Roger, it is something that we have taken a look at,” said Mark Owen, a spokesman for AdvantageWest. “Our board is going to be considering it.”

Late Wednesday, Owen called back to reveal that the organization decided not to hire France: “We will not be retaining the services of a lobbyist. We do not feel that we can afford a lobbyist or that we absolutely need a lobbyist, so we will not have a lobbyist.”

Owen added: “We had a close working relationship with Roger France when he was chief of staff for Congressman Taylor.”

But neither Owen nor Dale Carroll, the group’s executive director, would say who initiated the negotiations or when they began.

“The best way I can respond to that is that it grew out of some mutual discussions,” Carroll said.

Carroll and Owen declined to explain why AdvantageWest, with a $1 million budget that comes mostly from the state and which had never used outside lobbyists, would need to hire France, particularly since Taylor already demonstrated a commitment to funding AdvantageWest projects.

Documents and interviews show that while he was on Taylor’s payroll, France worked closely with AdvantageWest and that he played a role in making sure the organization would be the fiscal agent for federal money earmarked by Taylor.

Last year, France successfully shepherded legislation that promises $10 million over the next decade to showcase the region’s unique Appalachian culture, trades and crafts to tourists with the federal designation of a new national heritage area for the 25 counties that encompass the state’s Blue Ridge Mountains.

Taylor also used his post as chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds the Interior Department to earmark a $750,000 down payment on that legislation’s pledge.

France did all the things a loyal aide is expected to do. He conferred with several community groups and local leaders who wanted the special designation. He worked out the bill language introduced by Taylor. And he made sure the bill got through an often-treacherous legislative maze.

He did more, though, even after the legislation became law last November by endorsing AdvantageWest as the agency to receive and administer the federal funds.

The legislation designating the nation’s 24th national heritage area created a nine-member management board composed of representatives from three nonprofit groups, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, and three officials appointed by the governor. Two of the nine slots on the management entity were to be appointed by AdvantageWest.

According to minutes of that management board’s first meeting on Nov. 24, held in AdvantageWest’s offices, France participated via speakerphone. Two other Taylor aides attended the meeting in person.

The board members considered how best to handle the funds and whether it should establish itself as a separate nonprofit organization to formally receive the federal money.

Carroll, who is not formally on the nine-member board, pushed them to name AdvantageWest, arguing that his group already had staff and resources in place.

According to the minutes, one of the board members “asked what Congressman Taylor would like to see.”

France, according to the minutes, responded: “Roger France said that Congressman Taylor does not have any problem with AdvantageWest being the fiscal agent.”

The board then unanimously approved AdvantageWest to receive and administer the funds, according to the minutes.

France then urged the board to move quickly on a budget. “He said that if Congressman Taylor received the next budget request by February, he would be in good shape for March hearings on the 2005 Appropriations budget,” according to the minutes.

The minutes also noted that France “said that if the board wanted to find other federal funding, e.g. Transportation, Veterans Administration, it would need to get those requests in as well.”

France and the other two Taylor aides were the only Congressional aides participating in the meeting. Aides to Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), who pushed the heritage designation bill through the Senate, were not invited, according to people familiar with the matter.

“There’s been a whole lot of direct influence from the Congressman’s office in all of this,” said a person familiar with the decision to select AdvantageWest as the fiscal agent.

Indeed, the relationship between AdvantageWest and Taylor appears to be mutually beneficial. Just 10 days before that Nov. 24 meeting, AdvantageWest board members and executives hosted a fundraiser for Taylor, netting $3,450 for his campaign, according to Federal Election Commission reports.