Six years ago, a lobbying firm representing more than a dozen defense companies that were seeking appropriations earmarks opened an unusual side business: The lobbyists hired someone to provide campaign fundraising and PAC management services to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who at the time was ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Since then, Stevens has paid the firm, Robison International, about $350,000 to handle finances for his campaign and leadership political action committee; the firms clients have snagged tens of millions of dollars in earmarks in annual appropriations bills; and according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Robisons lobbying revenues have quadrupled, from just less than $1 million in 2002 to just more than $4 million in 2007.
Pam Cann, the Robison employee who handles all of the political work for Stevens, said she does not lobby and there is a firewall between her and the lobbyists at Robison.
Robison is my employer, but Im an accountant. Its a stand-alone function. … I am not a lobbyist, she told Roll Call in an interview. Nobody here serving as a lobbyist is a fundraiser. Cann said her services to Stevens are provided through a contract with Robison. She also provides some accounting services for Robison, she said, but she is unconnected to the companys lobbying. Cann said she sends out thank-you notes, helps organize an annual fundraiser, collects checks that come in to the PAC mailbox and otherwise provides administrative duties for the political operations.
Her boss, Robison President Randall West, said, I dont believe that anything improper has been done, nor would we ever do anything improper.
It is not uncommon for law firms that also lobby to provide PAC and campaign consulting services, particularly helping to ensure that political committees comply with Federal Election Commission reporting requirements, sources familiar with the business explain.
What makes Robisons arrangement unusual is that the firm was providing fundraising services for the Senator, and not providing legal services, which other lobbying firms do. The PAC and the campaign both pay Williams & Jensen, a law/lobbying firm, for legal assistance and FEC compliance.
Stevens is also the only client that Robison provides with campaign assistance.
According to campaign finance data compiled by Taxpayers for Common Sense, Stevens for Senate has paid Robison $167,000 for fundraising services and administrative support since 2002. Stevens Northern Lights Political Action Committee has paid Robison about $192,000 during the same period for PAC administration and fundraising.
Several lobbyists said Stevens payments to Robison raised ethical questions. There are obvious conflicts if you are helping the Member to raise money and you are lobbying them it is sort of a step beyond the normal appearance issues, said one lobbyist from another firm who asked not to be named.
Another lobbyist whose firm also performs PAC support duties said most firms shy away from direct involvement in fundraising for Member PACs. Their business is not to be fundraisers. They host fundraisers, they attend fundraisers, but they are not intimately involved in the Senators campaign … and we are not paid to solicit contributions.
Stevens spokesman Aaron Saunders wrote in an e-mail to Roll Call: The campaign has not retained Robison to do fundraising activities. The campaign has a separate paid Washington DC fundraising consultant who is not a lobbyist. The administrative support activities provided by Robison International, therefore, are totally separate from duties performed by our fundraising consultant.
The campaign paid the Washington firm E.M. Rahal & Co. for fundraising services in 2007 and 2008, according to FEC records, but prior to that, both the campaign and the PAC reported paying Robison tens of thousands of dollars for fundraising.
Saunders said these FEC reports were incorrect.
The Stevens for Senate Committee pays Robison International for administration support services it provides to the committee, Saunders wrote. This includes the part-time services of a person who performs duties such as checking the campaigns DC post office box, receiving campaign mail, and preparing correspondence relating to campaign matters. … This practice is consistent with the requirements of campaign finance laws.
Prior to 2007, these duties were inartfully described in FEC reports from 2005 and early 2006 as fundraising or fundraising support or services, Saunders added. In mid-2006 we corrected the description on the FEC forms to indicate office and support services. A single payment in December of 2006 reverted to the old description mistakenly but the duties and activities of the support person did not change.
Richard Ladd, a former Stevens staffer who was president of Robison until he sold it to West in February, and treasurer of the Northern Lights PAC until 2006, said there is no connection between Robisons political work for Stevens and the legislative interests of its clients.
We dont go to Sen. Stevens and make requests on behalf of clients, Ladd said. Most of our clients the clients that are interested in the big earmarks have their own lobbyists. Those are the people who make the requests. Ladd said his firm focuses more on analyzing legislation and strategizing for clients than on direct contact with lawmakers.
Saunders also rejected any notion that Stevens would support earmarks for Robison clients because of his relationship with the firm. Senator Stevens supports funding for federal programs and projects that he believes are in the best interests of his state and the nation. These decisions have always been based on the merit of each funding request not on who makes campaign donations or helps fundraise for his campaign committee.
A BusinessWeek analysis of the 2005 appropriations cycle included a list of the top 20 earmark recipients that year; 10 of those firms, including Boeing Co. ($456 million in earmarks), Alliant Techsystems Inc. ($100 million) and Oshkosh Corp. ($31 million), were Robison clients that year.
Each of these companies had other lobbying firms representing them as well, and there is no indication that Stevens independently requested an earmark for any of the firms.
All 10 of those firms represented by Robison also donated to Stevens PAC in 2005 and in many other years but the Senator would not have known that, Ladd said. I can categorically say to you that to my knowledge, Sen. Stevens never knows how much any individual person has given to his leadership PAC and I suspect that is true for his campaign, Ladd said.
However, Ladd and Cann both confirmed that they get approval from Stevens or one of two designated political staffers in his office for all contributions that the PAC makes.
Cann said that she was hired by Robison in 2002 to provide assistance to Stevens office after his chief of staff who had managed Stevens political functions fell ill.
According to Ladd, the arrangement began because I happened to have an office nearby where [Stevens staff could go] if they needed to do political things or fundraising things that were prohibited in federal buildings. Over time when it got to the point where, when they did fundraisers, we wound up helping in the administration of that, Ladd said. It got to the point that we decided it would be correct if we got paid for this.
Keep in mind that I worked on that committee and I worked for Sen. Stevens way back, Ladd said. He served as a professional staff member on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense when Stevens chaired the panel in the 1980s, and people like Sen. Stevens, in my opinion, they will ask someone they know and trust to help out.
But Ladd had a hand in the PAC long before hiring Cann in 2002. In a 1999 Roll Call article, Ladd who was already president of Robison as well as treasurer of the PAC was quoted as saying that he would be helping Stevens beef up his PAC to exercise his leadership role. In the 1998 election cycle, the PAC took in about $164,000 and gave out about $95,000 to federal candidates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
In the 2000 election cycle, the PAC took in $460,000; by 2006, that number had soared to just less than $720,000.
In July, Stevens was indicted on charges of failing to report on his annual financial disclosure forms gifts that he had received from an Alaska contracting firm. Ladd and Cann acknowledged that the FBI had met with Robison during the investigation that led to Stevens indictment, but both said that the bureau was not investigating the companys relationship with the Senator.
They came and talked to us about something that they had found in his house, Ladd said. They found something in the house and we had the paperwork. … They were not looking at any of the fundraising.
Stevens has vigorously denied any wrongdoing in that case, and he has pointed out that the charges against him are essentially paperwork violations, not corruption charges.
Correction: Sept. 8, 2008
The article incorrectly stated the amount of money paid by Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) campaign and political action committee to the lobbying firm Robison International since 2002. The amount was about $350,000, not $450,000