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K Street Files: BP Makes a Witty Hire Amid Spill Controversy

BP is continuing to snap up Washington, D.C., insiders to help deal with the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The company announced Friday that it has hired Witt Associates, headed by James Lee Witt, the Federal Emergency Management Agency director under President Bill Clinton. The D.C.-based firm specializes in crisis management and public safety.

“Witt Associates will provide us with the experienced hands who are familiar with the Gulf Coast and can reach into impacted communities to help BP deliver its recovery commitments in a smooth and effective fashion,” BP CEO Bob Dudley said in a statement.

Even before officially hiring the firm, Dudley had sought Witt’s advice on how BP could improve its much-criticized emergency response to the spill.

This isn’t the first Gulf-area disaster that Witt has worked on in the private sector. In 2005, then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) enlisted Witt to help her deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Witt started the firm in 2001 after serving as head of FEMA for Clinton’s two terms in office. The son of an Arkansas sharecropper, Witt also was Clinton’s disaster adviser when he was governor of Arkansas.

At FEMA, Witt was praised by both parties for cutting through the agency’s bureaucracy as well as deftly handling crises such as the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Not Cheap to Honor Members

Those honorary degrees that universities routinely give out to Members of Congress can carry quite a heavy price tag.

During the past six months, universities spent huge sums on commencement speeches and other events where they honored federal officials, according to recent lobbying donation reports filed with Congress.

The University of Massachusetts spent almost $421,000 on an event that honored Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) with its Chancellor’s Medal. But the University of Michigan topped all others by spending almost $1.3 million on its May commencement ceremony where President Barack Obama spoke.

Lobbying contribution reports also show that corporations are continuing to write six-figure checks this year to pay tribute to Members. For instance, FedEx forked over $250,000 and Northrop Grumman Corp. spent $100,000 to honor Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) at a Pacific Aviation Museum gala.

The National Music Publishers’ Association spent more than $100,000 on its annual meeting, where it paid tribute to piano-playing Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.).

Anheuser-Busch spent almost $300,000 in March and April to honor members of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. And the American Medical Association spent $186,000 at an awards dinner at Washington, D.C.’s Grand Hyatt to honor Del. Donna Christensen (D-Virgin Islands), who is a doctor.

While the total dollar amount for all honorary expenses is not yet known because the deadline for filing was after press time, last year corporations, labor unions and other professional groups spent about $25.2 million on such events.

That figure was a drop of $15 million, or
38 percent, from the previous year, the first time such reporting was required, according to a CQ MoneyLine study.

Night Out

K Streeters and Capitol Hill denizens couldn’t resist Holland & Knight’s fifth annual Rooftop Deck Caucus Happy Hour on Wednesday evening.

In addition to featuring cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the event showcased great views of the city. John Buscher, Mary Ann Gilleece, Rich Gold, Kevin Doran and Kate Dando were among more than a dozen Holland & Knight lobbyists on hand.

Fred Turner, chief of staff for the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe and a former chief of staff to Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), and Ned Michalek, chief of staff for Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) also attended. As did Peter Mitchell, chief of staff for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), and Maura Keefe, chief of staff for Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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