How to Scam a Lobbyist

Reporter’s Fake Ploy Succeeds

Posted September 22, 2008 at 4:12pm

In July 2007, Harper’s Magazine published a lengthy piece of undercover journalism that was modest in its ambitions and enticingly voyeuristic in its results.

The magazine’s Washington editor and author of the article, Ken Silverstein, printed some fake business cards, bought a London cell phone number and created a Web site for the Maldon Group, a fictitious London-based private investment firm involved in the export of natural gas.

Silverstein’s imaginary boss was a leading investor in the group and, so the storyline went, had ties to the regime of Turkmenistan president Kurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the country’s former health minister and a very real dictator who had only recently come to power in a sham election.

Silverstein, in his alter ego of Kenneth Case, then contacted four well-known D.C. lobby shops to see how they would react to his request to create a strategic communications plan to improve relations between the U.S. and the newly elected government of Turkmenistan.

“If presented with a potentially fat contract to represent a pariah regime,” Silverstein writes, “just how low would a well-heeled Washington lobbying firm sink?”

Attentive readers will notice the use of two of journalism’s overused lobby clichés (adjectives that Roll Call admittedly also uses on occasion): “fat contract” and “well-heeled Washington lobby firm,” phrases that imply excess and greed and money oozing from dark wainscoting.

But at least Silverstein doesn’t obscure where he’s coming from: Lobby firms are inherently sleazy, he seems to believe, whoremongers somewhere on the level of international arms dealers. Which of course is true — but just not for every firm and every lobbying client.

Silverstein sent e-mails to the Carmen Group, the Livingston Group, APCO Associates and Cassidy & Associates, each with experience representing controversial clients and working in the Caspian.

While the first two asked too many questions about the Maldon Group, the latter two were less inquisitive initially, so Silverstein set up back-to-back pitch meetings.

Those meetings, which Silverstein recorded, are the heart of the book, which includes Silverstein’s exegesis on the lobby business and his defense of his undercover operations (along with digs at Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz’s promotion of “balanced” journalism.)

For those who know the lobby business, Silverstein perfectly captures the blend of arrogance, obsequiousness and thinly veiled desperation that make up a typical corporate lobby pitch.

APCO, proposing a fee of $40,000 a month, and Cassidy — never one to slouch on price — proposing a minimum $100,000 a month for three years, followed up the meeting with e-mails to Kenneth Case.

Silverstein held both firms at bay, refusing to commit to one or the other, until the Washington Post called them for comment on the Harper’s story, at which point APCO and Cassidy realized they had been duped (which is really the fly-on-the-wall conversation I would love to have heard).

Reaction was quick and predictable.

Washington insiders, many of whom are comfortable with the notion that anyone deserves representation, yawned. After all, they insisted, “That’s what these firms do.” Silverstein, they said, had merely confirmed the obvious, the tack that Cassidy took in its defense as well.

APCO apparently yelped and hollered a great deal, drawing more attention to Silverstein’s article, but also to its unwitting complicity in the scam as well. (“Dictators take note:” Silverstein adds in a helpful aside, “Cassidy charges more than APCO, but it’s smarter, too.)

Much of the establishment journalism community decried Silverstein’s unapologetic deception.

Outside-the-Beltway liberals probably felt horrified and vindicated; Silverstein’s prose screams “scum” as he describes the various machinations that each firm confidently asserted it would use — nothing illegal, but all of it designed to lend credibility to a pariah regime. It’s the type of behavior that explains why it’s so easy for the Obama and McCain campaigns to turn lobbyists into bogeymen.

Silverstein, like the lobbyists he scalps, wants to make a buck as well. So he’s turned his 7,500-word Harper’s article into a 208-page Random House book called “Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship.”

The meat of the book, Silverstein’s detailed description of the two pitch meetings, takes up a mere 45 pages.

This is not scholarly stuff; it’s a snappy yarn, and if you don’t tire of Silverstein’s censorious tone, or his sometimes cloying first-person narrative, you can finish the book off in a weekend or over a very long morning coffee.

There are some wonderfully funny descriptions of the pitches. Here is Silverstein quoting APCO’s Barry Schumacher explaining how colleagues like former State Department official Elizabeth Jones set APCO apart: “‘People like Beth can call up these policymakers,’ Schumacher said with a shake of the head, as if he himself were in awe of Jones’s access. ‘Getting information like that with a couple of phone calls is priceless.’”

And here is Cassidy’s Gregg Hartley, highlighting his firm’s work for Equatorial Guinea, a pariah state like Turkmenistan. Three years ago, Hartley told Silverstein, the country’s president, Teodoro Obiang, ranked sixth on Parade magazine’s list of the world’s worst dictators.

“‘He’s still not a great guy,’ Hartley went on as a few of his colleagues suppressed grins, ‘but he’s not in the top ten anymore, and we can take some credit for helping them figure out how to work down that list. Is he going to win the U.N. humanitarian award next year? No, he’s not, but we’re making progress.’”

When the Harper’s piece appeared, the pitch-perfect description of the Cassidy and APCO sales pitches was at times overshadowed by the controversy over Silverstein’s deceptive reporting methods. That’s a red herring, a criticism that’s much easier to make now that undercover journalism has gone out of fashion. Journalists sign up to ferret out malfeasance, and there’s no better way to document it than a sting operation.

Except in Silverstein’s case, he didn’t uncover any illegality, just greed and a dubious form of morality. But isn’t that worth knowing about?

What’s more troubling is Silverstein’s apparently unambiguously negative view of lobbyists. Obviously, everyone doesn’t deserve representation. But who’s to say when that line has been crossed? Lobbyists are proxies for their clients, and their clients have a right to redress their grievances.

The bigger inequity — the real immorality — is that the best lobbyists, the ones who can actually cut a deal or kill a provision, are the most expensive. So wealthy interests automatically have the cards stacked in their favor.

Still, in the end, there’s only so much dissembling a clever lobby shop can do. (A vibrant press remains one of the few defenses against disreputable lobbying campaigns, one more reason shrinking newspaper budgets are such a tragedy.) With the world’s biggest miscreants, all the lobbyists in the world can’t apply enough lipstick to turn a dictator into a statesman.