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Base-Closing Lobbyists: Open for Business

The last round of military base closures and realignments occurred a decade ago, but the same small group of advocates who understand the arcane process has emerged again this year, girding for what should be the most brutal showdown yet.

Lobbyists who represent the local communities and businesses that rely on the nation’s military bases say the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC, process is unusually secretive and tightly controlled by the office of the Defense secretary.

The Defense staffers working the issue, sources say, have been required to take the unusual measure of signing non-disclosure agreements.

“For all the counsel we give to our clients, the bottom line is, ‘This is not the normal BRAC,’” said Paul Hirsch, president of Madison Government Affairs, a lobbying firm. “In previous rounds, the services were more in control, and now it’s the office of the Secretary of Defense that’s in control of their destinies.”

This round of BRAC — the final one of four to use this format — has become closely intertwined with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s effort to transform the U.S. military.

For now, the most immediate, albeit elusive, goal for lobbyists is to influence the lineup of BRAC commissioners, all nine of whom will be appointed by March 15 by President Bush. House and Senate leaders have recommended six of the nine potential commissioners, with the president selecting the remaining three, including the chairman.

“Everybody is just scurrying around on these commissioners,” said Barry Rhoads, chief executive of the Rhoads Group and the deputy general counsel to the 1991 BRAC.

The next step, after the commissioners are in place, will come in mid-May when the Pentagon releases the much anticipated list that names the bases to be cut, added to, or altered.

Of course, that doesn’t stop fake lists from circulating. The actual list, said James Gallagher, a solo consultant and former BRAC Congressional affairs director, is a closely held secret: “In this business, it’s totally about rumors and suspicions.”

Names of the likely six commissioners tapped by Congress are already out there and include former Rep. James Hansen (R-Utah) and Sam Skinner, a former secretary of Transportation during the George H.W. Bush administration who now works in the Chicago office of Greenberg Traurig.

The remaining three, Bush’s picks, are still unknown, although sources say that one name on Bush’s shortlist is likely to be Anthony Principi, Bush’s first Veterans Affairs secretary.

“A lot of communities are focused on potential commissioners,” said Cece Siracuse of Hurt, Norton & Associates, who served as BRAC’s director of Congressional and intergovernmental affairs in 1995. “Some states like Ohio and Connecticut have sent delegation letters putting forward commissioner suggestions.”

But, said her colleague Robert Hurt, “We have not tried to lead a charge for specific candidates. It’s a two-edged sword when you put someone’s name out in public.”

The people moving things behind the scenes are not limited to hired lobbyists. One pick of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is Adm. Harold Gehman, whom Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) has championed.

“Admiral Gehman is someone that Sen. Warner regards very highly, and he made that clear to Sen. Frist,” said a spokesman for Warner.

And even though no one is officially a commissioner yet, lobbyists and their clients are already working the likely nominees.

“You can start talking to some of the commissioners you know,” said former Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), whose firm Holland & Knight represents the city of Jacksonville, Fla., among others, on BRAC.

In addition to one-time BRAC staffers and former military brass, a few Members of Congress like Fowler or lobbyists with strong ties to a state get into the BRAC action.

Fowler, who is chairman of the Defense Policy Board and was on the Armed Services Committee in Congress, leads a team that includes Jim Lariviere, a colonel in the Marine Reserves and Peter Murphy, a one-time general counsel for the Marine Corps.

“I had my mayor of Jacksonville up to the Pentagon last week, talking about our facilities in Jacksonville,” Fowler said. “We’ve got him coming back in mid-March for meetings on the Hill. A lot of the process is just behind-the-scenes, nitty-gritty work. It’s a busy sector, especially between now and the end of September.”

Jeffrey Lane, a former top staffer to then-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) now working at the firm Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice, represents the state of North Carolina, which has several military installations. “For the last couple of months, it has been the focus, a significant part of the practice,” he said.

John Ullyot, spokesman for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said there’s “an entire cottage industry that has sprung up within the lobbying community around the BRAC process. Some lobbyists can be helpful to communities in familiarizing them with the process and marshalling their arguments to make to the BRAC commissioners.”

But, Ullyot said, lobbyists who promise to get a base kicked off the closure list are suspect.

Indeed, the business of helping BRAC clients can be dicey. The work is sparse because it’s cyclical, and conflicts abound. Gregory Sharp, president of the defense-focused Spectrum Group, said his firm will only represent one fighter base, one tanker base and one depot.

“They compete with each other if they are the same type of mission,” he said.

Even lobbyists who specialize in BRAC consulting say that, in general, it amounts to less than 20 percent of their business.

“BRAC is not what you want to have as your core business, because it doesn’t have long legs to it,” said Sharp, whose clients include communities in Oklahoma, South Carolina and Louisiana.

After the BRAC process ends later this year, many consultants will still find work for the communities around bases, especially bases that closed or lost a good chunk of their missions, to rebuild.

“There is the prospect of base redevelopment work after BRAC,” said Hurt, who did similar redevelopment work in the 1990s around Fort McClellan in Alabama.

Vann Goodloe of the Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce has retained Paul Hirsch’s firm since the 1995 BRAC and said it’s necessary to pull out all stops to preserve the bases in his area.

“It’s such a major part of our local community,” said Goodloe. “It’s the No. 1 industry.”

Goodloe is putting together a delegation from his community to descend on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon on May 19 and 20, just days after the Pentagon’s deadline to release the list of proposed base closures and changes.

“We are preparing for the worst, and have developed contingency plans should one of our bases show up on the list,” Goodloe said. “Our feeling is that if a truly objective review occurs, we’re going to be fine.”

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