K&L Gates lobbyist James Walsh might have come to the Republican National Convention last week to serve his official duty as an alternate delegate. But cigars were also on his mind.
Away from the media glare of the convention arena, Walsh had set up private receptions for delegates from Florida and Pennsylvania at the J.C. Newman Cigar Co. factory in Tampa, Fla.’s historic Ybor City neighborhood, where they could smell, taste and smoke cigars at one of the last remaining premium, Cuban-style factories in Florida.
The factory visit also provided the guests with a message: Federal legislation introduced last year would keep cigars like J.C. Newman’s from being regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The nearly nonstop schedule of similar behind-the-scenes and exclusive events at this year’s national conventions shows how they remain an irresistible way for lobbying and law firms to use the festive atmosphere away from Washington to connect their clients to policymakers and political insiders.
“Virtually every client or every potential client is here in some capacity,” said Walsh, a former congressman from New York state and now a K&L Gates government affairs counselor in Washington. “They’re all here. They’re all in one big bowl.”
At the GOP convention, there were enough side events to make for a hectic calendar: boat cruises, concerts with Motown legends The Commodores and iconic rock band Blues Traveler, catered breakfasts and late-night, “after-gavel” parties into the early morning. The goal: Put clients in the same room as the pols who could help them.
McGuireWoods sponsored one of those late-night events for a client on August 28, just a short walk from the convention arena at a stylish bowling alley, a theme paying tribute to one of the more famous movie roles from the night’s special guest, Hollywood actor Jeff Bridges.
Bridges is the spokesman for No Kid Hungry, a Washington-based nonprofit that has paired up with 18 states to fight childhood hunger in America. But the organization wants to be in all 50 states and is raising money for the cause.
In the wee hours of August 29, McGuireWoods Richmond, Va., partner Eric Finkbeiner paced nervously in the humidity outside the Splitsville bowling alley waiting for one of the political stars of the night, Republican Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, to show up and introduce Bridges to the partiers.
McDonnell, a longtime supporter of the charity, had addressed the convention just hours earlier and finally arrived at the bowling alley. From a stage in an exclusive VIP room, Bridges shook McDonnell’s hand and started off his speech to the crowd with a riff from one of Bridges’ famous lines as The Dude in the movie The Big Lebowski. The Academy Award winner said he was a Democrat, “but that’s just, like, my opinion, man.”
A similar party for No Kid Hungry is planned for the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. “It’s an opportunity to be with the decision makers,” McGuireWoods Consulting President L.F. Payne, a Democratic former congressman from Virginia, said of the conventions. “This one was to help them meet more people on the Republican side.”
Some lobbyists took extra steps to make sure their VIPs were put at ease through opulent parties, despite the increased attention on the influence of corporate money on elections, and continued shots against lobbyists from the White House and watchdog groups.
Lobbyist-sponsored parties cannot now honor individual members of Congress, so instead the guests of honor are groups of lawmakers or delegations. There were no reports of bashes that broke any lobbying rules.
“I think people are a little more relaxed” when it’s private, Walsh said. The legislators are “very skittish” about being seen around lobbyists, he added.
Waterfront restaurant Jackson’s Bistro became one of the most controversial party spots after one Washington lobbyist turned it into one of the most exclusive and covert hangouts for Republicans, taking steps to keep secret his or her name, as well as those who attended the mixers.
When a reporter tried to walk into the upscale restaurant, a guard from a private security firm in Orlando, Fla., turned the interloper away. This, the guard said, is a private, invitation-only event. On the morning of August 28, guests mingled with drinks and shrimp cocktail, leaning on the balcony that overlooks a narrow strip of deep blue Tampa Bay waters to the convention hall and the downtown skyline.
What the restaurant won’t say is which lobbying firm has rented out the entire 22,000-square-foot bistro and sushi bar for the week. Whichever firm it was required a nondisclosure agreement, said Kelley Flynn, Jackson’s Bistro marketing director. “It’s a private client,” she said. “We were working on this for a little over a year.”
ABC News reported that when its reporters and cameras showed up there, employees first tried to hide the sign with the honored guests’ names. The manager then threatened to call police if the cameras weren’t turned off.
AT&T Inc. hosted the August 28 morning event at Jackson’s Bistro, for the Arizona delegation, which included the state’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, known for her outspoken criticism of President Barack Obama and his immigration policies. Attendees grabbed a gift bag on the way out.
Outside the door was a sign with AT&T’s logo and a sign that warned: “If you are a public official or employee, please consider the applicable federal, state or local gift restrictions that apply. Thank you for your compliance.”
AT&T has long been a power in Washington, spending $10.5 million on its federal government affairs efforts during the first half of this year, according to congressional records. The telecommunications giant uses its own internal D.C. lobbying crew and outside firms to help with its public policy work, including in 2011, when it unsuccessfully sought approval of a $39 billion merger with T-Mobile USA.
A list of D.C. firms that have lobbied for AT&T in the past includes two with connections to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. One is Patton Boggs, where partners have played key roles in his campaign, especially campaign counsel Benjamin Ginsberg. The list also includes Wiley Rein, with founding partner Richard Wiley serving as a co-chair of Romney’s legal advisory team.
In an interview last week, Wiley said he didn’t know who had rented the restaurant. A Patton Boggs spokeswoman didn’t return a call for comment.
Other organizations also received some exposure in Tampa with the help of Washington lobbyists.
FedEx Corp., telecommunications company Level 3 Communications Inc. and engineering and construction firm CH2M Hill Inc. joined Denver-based Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck to host dozens of Colorado Republicans aboard the 130-foot Yacht StarShip II for a two-hour tour of Tampa Bay on August 28. Donning red shirts, jeans and cowboy hats, the Coloradans ate seafood paella and drank mango cocktails as Representative Cory Gardner of Colorado and other Republicans rallied the troops with criticism of Obama and praise for Romney.
Of the three companies, two are Brownstein lobbying clients, according to congressional records. FedEx paid the law firm $160,000 for its lobbying help during the first half of this year, and CH2M paid Brownstein $100,000. “It was a 10 out of 10,” Brownstein attorney and policy adviser Melissa Kuipers said of the cruise.
K&L Gates also has received tens of thousands of dollars this year from lobbying clients whose interests were on display in Tampa.
The law firm is lobbying for the legislation to prevent FDA regulation of cigars on behalf of the International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association and Cigar Rights of America, which have the support of J.C. Newman. During the first half of this year, the firm received $120,000 from the premium-cigar group and $30,000 from the cigar rights organization, according to congressional records.
“It’s a way to thank the people who have supported the bill, in a minor way,” Walsh said of the receptions.
But the convention events also have other uses. The gatherings give K&L Gates the opportunity to raise its profile, Walsh said. He said the name recognition of the firm “still needs to grow” after the Kirkpatrick & Lockhart and Preston Gates & Ellis merger in 2007.
The plan was a bit different for Foley & Lardner, which used a reception in its Tampa office that overlooks the convention arena to raise the firm’s profile among local businesses and the firm’s Florida clients.
On the night of August 28, Foley partner David Ralston, who flew to Florida from Washington for the event, and other firm lawyers mingled among guests noshing on bacon-wrapped scallops and cordon bleu poppers and drinking from an open bar, talking about different areas of the firm’s practice.
Such events can open up the eyes of current clients who might not have realized what work other parts of the firm can do, said Ralston — and just meeting people face to face can make them more likely to seek the firm out when work is needed.
There already have been follow-up meetings that will result in extra work for the firm, Ralston said. “It’s well worth it from our standpoint,” he said. “It was a very useful event for us to connect the dots in who Foley is, in a way they wouldn’t just by going to the website.”