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What Next for Ripon?

Moderate GOP Group Copes With Leadership Change, Scrutiny

The Ripon Society, a moderate Republican research and public policy organization dating back to 1962, is weathering some changes this summer, both internal and external.

This spring, Ripon Executive Director Elvis Oxley — the son of Rep. Mike Oxley (R-Ohio), the influential chairman of the Financial Services Committee — announced that he was leaving the group for an undetermined position.

Sources said the Congressman had planned to participate in an event with Ripon in Ohio this month, but has since canceled it. Oxley’s press secretary did not respond to calls seeking comment.

Also this spring, Ripon has endured media scrutiny over a couple of trips that are part of its longstanding efforts to send Members to out-of-town events, primarily in their Congressional districts.

Nonprofit groups, such as Ripon, are allowed to pay for Member travel under House rules, but as questions have arisen about possible abuses of Congressional travel by special interests funding trips through the use of nonprofits, Ripon’s programs for Members have attracted attention.

The group’s president is lobbyist Richard Kessler, who is also president of Kessler and Associates, a firm that was listed as the sponsor of a 2003 Congressional trip to Ireland. Lobbyists and lobbying firms are prohibited from paying for Members’ travel, even if they later get reimbursed.

Subsequent news accounts have said that it was actually Kessler and Associates’ parent company, Century Business Services Inc., that paid for the trip.

The Ripon Society hasn’t garnered many headlines over the years, but it has quietly and consistently attracted big names to its events.

Last month, Roll Call reported on a previously undisclosed August 2004 Ripon trip to Chicago involving two Members, Reps. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and Mark Foley (R-Fla.).

On June 7, at its annual dinner, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) delivered the keynote address. According to sources familiar with the dinner, Hastert even made a joking reference to the recent travel controversies.

In all, the organization lists on its Web site a half-dozen out-of-town events held for Members since the start of 2004, in addition to numerous events in Washington, D.C.

After Oxley’s departure, the society’s goals and plans will remain the same, said George McNeill, Ripon’s chief administrative officer. That mission, McNeill said, includes bringing together government, academia and other like-minded individuals to discuss policy.

“We’re a public policy research organization,” McNeill said. “We hold policy breakfasts and dinners where Members of Congress can talk about issues that are happening.”

McNeill and board members said the society is not a forum for lobbying. One board member added that the Ripon Society is not a lobbying entity, and that despite the presence of a lobbyist as its president and lobbyists as board members, the group does not lobby or allow lobbying to take place at its events.

McNeill also said that Kessler and Associates’ clients receive no special attention or privileges from other Ripon members.

Kessler and Associates clients include Abbott Laboratories, Altria, Astar Air Cargo, Pfizer Inc. and Bristol Myers Squibb. “They pay the same as everybody else,” McNeill said.

Kessler, who is famously tight lipped with the press, has not returned several calls seeking comment.

McNeill said that Kessler and Associates and Ripon Society are completely separate entities. Some of the Ripon Board members include lobbyists for Kessler and Associates clients such as Altria’s Gregory Scott, according to sources familiar with Ripon.

The Ripon Society’s small staff includes Robin Kessler, the sister of Richard Kessler, who is corporate finance director.

McNeill pointed out that Robin Kessler was hired not during her brother’s tenure as president of the Ripon Society but by the former president, one-time Rep. Bill Frenzel (R-Minn.).

Since passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, lobbying insiders said, tax-exempt groups like the Ripon Society have been in a good position to collect soft money from corporations that are interested in networking with politicians.

“In general, the soft money went to 527s and 501(c) organizations,” said campaign and ethics lawyer Brett Kappel of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease. “Everyone knew this was going to happen when the campaign finance bill passed.”

Since many of these groups have come under fire for Congressional travel, Member and corporate interest has cooled.

“It might have some temporary chilling effect,” Kappel said. “But if it’s a group that’s been around a long time like this one, it probably blows over quickly. Right now the sensitivities are very high and people are concerned.”

The Ripon Society is now a separate entity from the Ripon Education Fund, another group that Richard Kessler had previously been affiliated with. It also sponsors Congressional travel, mostly to Europe, but it has recently said it won’t do an annual trip this year.

McNeill, who said he first met Kessler about 10 years ago while McNeill was working in the D.C. area for the National Rifle Association, said he commutes “just about every week” from his home in Vermont. According to a Washington Representatives book from the mid-1990s, McNeill’s title was listed as director of state and local affairs for the NRA.

Kessler has been affiliated with Ripon, though not as president, for many years. He took over the volunteer job as president in March 2004, according to McNeill.

Some sources said they feared that the departure of Elvis Oxley, whose real name is Michael Chad Oxley, would strain the group’s ties with Congressman Oxley.

McNeill said the cancellation of the event with Congressman Oxley was unrelated to Elvis Oxley’s leaving.

“I don’t think one had anything to do with the other,” McNeill said. “We’ve had several Members of Congress cancel events because of scheduling conflicts.”

And one Ripon board member said the group is on a positive track and will continue to be so after Oxley’s departure.

“The direction of Ripon, I don’t think, is based on any one individual,” this board member said. “The executive director plays a minor role. To me, it’s at best an administrative role. The direction is determined by the issues and the board members.”

Elvis Oxley did not return phone calls seeking comment. Reached by cell phone, Oxley said he did not wish to comment on Ripon or his future plans until he was prepared to make an announcement about his next move.

In a previous interview in May, Oxley said he is “pursuing other opportunities and taking this brief amount of time to find the right opportunity.”

McNeill is easing into Oxley’s duties and will likely run day-to-day operations until a permanent successor for Oxley is found.

“I think there’s going to be a search for someone to replace Elvis,” said McNeill, who added that Oxley’s year-and-a-half tenure had been a success.

“He’s done very well by the group,” McNeill said. “He has rejuvenated the magazine and started the ‘bully pulpit’ series,” which offers Members an opportunity to express their views on various issues, he said.

Ripon, according to sources, is also looking to attract new members. And it has recently started a newsletter, in addition to its magazine.

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