K St. Pitch Easier in Alaska

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:46pm

Mayors from Alaska — like Sarah Palin once was — might want to hold off on hiring lobbyists to contact their high-powered Senator, as mayors in Mississippi and West Virginia found earmarks easy to come by without the services of K Street.

Palin, the Alaska governor and GOP vice presidential nominee, hired a lobbying firm during her tenure as mayor of Wasilla, and her Senator was the Appropriations chairman. Her decision has drawn scrutiny from Democrats and media outlets largely because of her claims that she opposes the use of earmarks.

But for government watchdogs, it has also drawn attention to a broader issue of why municipal officials whose home-state Senators are chairmen or ranking member of the Appropriations Committee would hire lobbyists at all, particularly since the top three Senate appropriators come from sparsely populated states whose mayors presumably would have access.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) served as chairman of the committee from 1997 until 2005, while Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) chaired the committee from 2005 to 2006. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is on his second round as chairman, having held the post in the ’90s and again after Democrats took control of the chamber following the 2006 elections. Byrd was also ranking member during Cochran’s and Stevens’ tenures.

An exact tally of municipalities in Alaska, Mississippi and West Virginia, the three home states of Appropriations chairmen over the past decade, is difficult to determine because of the lack of standardization in the Senate’s lobbying disclosure rules. However, data from the Web site Opensecrets.org indicates the use of lobbyists is a widespread practice among Alaska’s local officials, with at least 30 local governments — including both the city of Anchorage and the Anchorage Parking Authority — having spent millions of dollars on lobbying shops since 1998, while only a handful of Mississippi officials have employed lobbyists.

No West Virginia city or county governments have hired lobbyists during that time largely because of Byrd’s insistence that local officials contact him directly rather than spend funds on outside help.

Keith Ashdown, the chief investigator for Taxpayers for Common Sense, argued that it was unclear why local officials would need outside assistance to get the attention of their home-state lawmakers, especially in the case of the Senate, where the leaders represent such small states.

“No municipality or county should get a lobbyist. They already have one. Their names are Sen. Stevens and Sen. Cochran,” Ashdown said. “It sort of defies logic why a town represented by Sen. X [on the Appropriations Committee] would ever have to pay to get money.”

Ashdown is not alone in seeing little point in municipal entities seeking professional help getting earmarks from Congress.

For years, Byrd has warned local officials to stay clear of lobbying shops. Byrd spokeswoman Jenny Thalheimer said the veteran lawmaker sees no reason for his communities to hire lobbyists because he believes the fundamental role of lawmakers is to look out for the interests of their constituents in the first place.

“West Virginia elects Members to the House and Senate to look out for their best interests. And that’s what they’re there to do,” Thalheimer said.

Danny Jones, the Republican mayor of Charleston, West Virginia’s capital, said hiring a lobbyist would not be advisable either for his city or others in the state.

“Sen. Byrd would not look fondly on any city that hired a lobbyist. If I want something from him, he wants to hear directly from me,” Jones explained.

Jones said a lobbyist recently pitched city officials, offering his services for a modest $20,000 fee. Jones said he called Byrd’s office ,and aides said the Senator “doesn’t want to hear from anyone on his behalf.” He said his access is good and of lobbyists, he said, “There’s not going to be one as long he’s there.”

Similarly, Cochran spokesman Adam Telle said the Mississippian maintains an open-door policy for local officials and that having lobbyists or outside help is not necessary. “Whether a community chooses to seek outside guidance doesn’t matter to Sen. Cochran. If they are from Mississippi, they will always have a legitimate voice in his office,” Telle said.

And while Cochran has not gone as far as Byrd in discouraging lobbyists from representing cities and counties before his office, the lobbying records indicate few officials in the state have felt the need to hire professional help.

Over the past decade, only 10 cities or counties have retained lobbyists, and generally they have used their services for one or two years. Only the capital city of Jackson and the Jackson County Board of Supervisors have had a regular lobbying shop work for them, each spending some $840,000 on the services of Winston & Strawn since 1997, according to Opensecrets.

By contrast, local officials in Alaska have made it a regular habit of retaining the services of a handful of K Street firms, a number of which have longstanding ties to Stevens. According to Opensecrets’ database, at least 12 municipalities have retained the services of Hoffman Silver Gilman & Blasco over the past decade. Principal Steven Silver served as Stevens’ chief of staff for years before moving to K Street. In 2007 alone, those local governments paid the firm more than $529,000 in lobbying fees.

Silver has represented Wasilla first at Robertson, Monagle & Eastaugh, when then-Mayor Palin hired the firm, and later at his own shop, according to lobbying records.

While mayor, Wasilla received 14 earmarks worth $27 million, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.

It is unclear why Alaskan officials would decide to hire lobbyists while their counterparts in Mississippi and West Virginia would not; Stevens’ office declined to comment. Ashdown argued that it is in partly because of erosion of the earmarking process. In the past, he said earmarks were used to help ensure funding to communities and for projects on a needs-based system. Increasingly, they have been allotted based on political pull. He said there has been a “comodification of earmarks” where campaign donations and well-connected lobbyists count success “rather than the cities or towns with the most needs getting help.”