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Days after the midterm elections, one of the most influential business lobbies in Washington is facing dramatic changes in its upper management. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is losing its longtime senior vice president and general counsel, Stephen Bokat, 60, and Chief Operating Officer Suzanne Clark is leaving to become president of the publishing company National Journal Group. This comes just as the powerful pro-business lobby took a blow last week with Democrats taking control of both the House and the Senate. The Chamber — which houses several other umbrella organizations, including its lobbying arm, the Institute on Legal Reform; the National Chamber Litigation Center; and the National Chamber Foundation — has aligned itself more closely with the political right in recent years under the leadership of Chamber President Tom Donohue. “We worked hard to elect pro-business candidates,” said Donohue in a statement after the election. “In a very difficult environment, we won some and we lost some. But it’s important to remember two things. First, this election didn’t turn on business issues, but instead on the war in Iraq and congressional scandals. Second, we don’t measure success by the numbers — what counts is whether we are a force when the big decisions are made, and we will be.” As part of its political program, the Chamber put 274 people on the ground, ran TV and radio spots in 35 races, distributed 13.5 million pieces of mail, placed 12.5 million phone calls, and sent more than 18.8 million e-mails. Working with its local chambers and federation members, the Chamber held fund-raisers, educated voters, and organized get-out-the-vote efforts. In scope, cost, and reach, it was the Chamber’s most expansive program ever. “The Chamber’s agenda for the future does not change based on who controls Congress,” said Donohue. Working with a Republican Congress, the Chamber has been instrumental in getting large-scale legislative measures, such as bankruptcy reform, Medicare reform, and the long-standing transportation bill, passed. Along the way, Bokat has been key in keeping the Chamber out of legal trouble while raising its profile in the judicial arena. As head of the litigation center, Bokat has bolstered the Chamber’s influence in the legal community by filing amicus briefs at the Supreme Court and appeals court levels asking to throw out punitive damage awards and fighting the Securities and Exchange Commission on Sarbanes-Oxley rules. “[The litigation center has] become an increasingly important force in the legal community in Washington and even nationally in articulating concerns of the business community,” says Eugene Scalia, a partner at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher. In the early 1970s business interests were losing in the judicial arena as public interest groups such as Public Citizen began actively pursuing litigation. Soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell Jr., then an attorney in Richmond, Va., who sat on several major corporate boards, wrote in 1971 that business organizations needed a champion in the judiciary in order to have an active voice in the debate. Taking his advice, the Chamber formed its litigation center in 1977. Staffed by then-Chamber general counsel Larry Kraus, associate general counsel Stan Kaleczyc, and Fred Krebs, the litigation center was looking for another lawyer with expertise in labor and employment law to deal with regulations coming from the recently formed Occupational Safety and Health Administration. It found Bokat, then an appellate litigator for the Department of Labor. “In those days the D.C. Circuit was a lousy place for businesses,” says Bokat. “It was a liberal court, and it was very hard to get a favorable decision. The idea was that [the Chamber] could represent other organizations as plaintiffs or even defendants in litigation and get the case outside of D.C. to do a little forum shopping.” The litigation center took on its first case in BREAD PAC v. FEC. The case, brought by the American Bakers Association, the National Lumber and Building Dealers Association, and the National Restaurant Association, argued against a Federal Election Commission rule that restricts trade associations from soliciting senior executives for contributions without prior approval from their members. The case made its way to the Supreme Court on a procedural question, but the Court rejected the trade associations’ arguments. “That still burns in the belly of our president, Tom Donohue,” says Bokat. Bokat was named the organization’s general counsel in 1982. Since then, he has grown the litigation center’s caseload to almost 100 cases this year and pumped up its status as the voice for the business community at the Supreme Court level. As unions’ power has diminished, the litigation center’s platform has increasingly moved away from labor and employment issues to punitive damages, class action certification, forum selection, constitutional restraint, and federal pre-emption cases. Still, the center runs on a small in-house staff, with two in-house lawyers and Executive Vice President Robin Conrad heading up the day-to-day activities. The litigation center’s operating budget for 2006 was $2.5 million, according to Bokat. The litigation center also uses outside lawyers and corporate counsel on advisory committees to help review and recommend whether it should enter cases. It has launched a California advisory committee, just a couple of months old, which is looking at legal issues coming out of that state. “California is a forum for all things, good and bad, that happen first in the legal world,” says Arnold Friede, senior corporate counsel at Pfizer Inc. and a member of the California Litigation Advisory Committee. In 2005 the litigation center filed suit in federal district court challenging California’s advertising-fax ban. Federal law grants an exemption to organizations with membership relationships, giving those organizations the ability to fax members without written consent. (The Chamber had heavily lobbied the legislative branch to get the exemption). The junk-fax law in California had prevented companies from sending faxes without having prior written consent. In June, California Judge Morrison England Jr. ordered a permanent injunction of the state’s fax ban. As the litigation center’s caseload has increased, so has the number of outside counsel it has on retainer. Firms such as McKenna Long & Aldridge; Jones Day; McDermott Will & Emery; Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw; and Sidley Austin are called on to litigate cases like the Chamber’s challenge to the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act and to write the large number of amicus briefs the Chambers files at the Supreme Court. The Chamber has used practitioners such as Carter Phillips, Roy Englert Jr., and John Roberts Jr., before he became chief justice. Bokat has also taken an active role in overseeing the Chamber’s election law component. In the 2006 election cycle, Bokat and his team have reviewed more than 600 pieces of political direct mail and advertising to make sure each is compliant with federal election law, he says. With Bokat’s retirement after almost 30 years and Clark’s announcement that she’ll be leaving in January, the Chamber is restructuring some of its executive staff positions. David Chavern, who was brought in to lead its Capital Markets Initiative just two years ago and also became chief of staff, took on the chief legal officer position on Nov. 1. Last week, Donohue announced that Chavern will also become chief operating officer. With the added duties, Bokat says, Chavern probably won’t be as involved in the day-to-day activities of the litigation center. Chavern has never worked in the Chamber’s legal department. Bokat, who had expected to retire in December but stay on as a consultant, will remain on staff to ease the transition. “When the system is working well, the focus is, How do we make it bigger and do more?” says Chavern, who previously worked as deputy general counsel of the Export-Import Bank and has also worked in private practice at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. That will be a question for the entire organization as the Chamber looks to the future post-election. “They are still a formidable organization,” says William Archey, former Chamber president and now head of the American Electronics Association. “The fact that the leadership has changed, or at least there is a perception of change with the Chamber being much more Republican than Democrat — I don’t know if that will come back to haunt them.”
Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected].

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