The Lobbying Game: Why the Revolving Door Won't Close

  • Share
  • Read Later
Before Jeffrey Shockey worked for one of the most powerful committees in Congress, he was a lobbyist at one of the more successful boutique lobbying firms in Washington. Before that, you guessed it, he worked for one of the most powerful committees in Congress. In fact, Shockey, 40, has breezed so smoothly through the revolving door between Congress and the lobbying world that, critics say, it's hard to tell where one job begins and the other ends.

At a time when the excesses of the Jack Abramoff scandal have prodded Congress to at least go through the motions on lobbying reform, the dizzying merry-go-round of staffers like Shockey show just how hard it is to really change the way things are done on Capitol Hill. Granted, many lobbyists chase pork and members of Congress regularly exchange favors with webs of family and ex-aides. But Shockey's straddling of K Street and Capitol Hill is particuarly poignant and visible—even if, as in most cases, his lawyer and spokesman say it is all perfectly legal.

It's the revolving door that helps perpetuate the cozy world of lobbying for such favors as earmarks—the suddenly controversial system by which the House and Senate Appropriations Committees dish out tens of billions of dollars in pork from the $843 billion a year in discretionary spending they doled out for this year. President Bush and new House Majority Leader John Boehner are now calling for reform of the clubby earmark game. But Appropriations Committee members and the many other pork enthusiasts in Congress have long staved off such change—partly because constituents have seldom got mad at their own representatives for bringing home the bacon.

Shockey's career is a case study in how the game works. When he left Capitol Hill for the lobbying world in 1999—after spending more than eight years working for Rep. Jerry Lewis, a Republican from California who had chaired key subcommittees—many of his new clients, including muncipalities, hospitals and lesser-known universities, were from Lewis's district. After years of getting paid to represent them on the Hill, he was now getting paid a lot more to represent them on the Hill.

Shockey even got a contract from the city of Redlands, which is Congressman Lewis' hometown. "The only cities in the country that don't need a lobbyist are the ones represented by a cardinal," Washington parlance for an a Appropriations subcommittee chairman, says Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a budget watchdog. Karl Haws, a former Redlands mayor and city councilman who made the formal motion in January 2000 to give Shockey's firm a contract for $30,000, according to council minutes, says it was "helpful to have a knowledgeable person to guide you.... We can't fairly expect Mr. Lewis, with all of his responsibilities, to drop everything and research what we want when we want it."

In 2004 alone, long after he was covered by the one-year, loophole-ridden lobbying ban for former congressional staffers, Shockey made $1.5 million, according to his House financial disclosure form. He helped win at least $150 million in pork for an array of clients at the lobbying firm of Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. As with most successful lobbyists, it no doubt helped that he was tight with committee members and staff. As part of his new career, Shockey and his firm also helped his old boss raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the GOP keep its majority, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune, which first reported on some of Shockey's history late last year. And so, when House Republicans rewarded Lewis, 71, with the Appropriations chairmanship 13 months ago, Shockey was among the handful of trusted former aides whom the affable, silver-haired congressman pressed back into service.

The $160,000 committee post meant an almost 90% pay cut, but Shockey's lobbying firm helped cushion the blow. Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez—where Lewis’s close friend Bill Lowery, a former California congressman, is a partner—gave Shockey a $600,000 going-away buyout, according to Shockey’s financial disclosure form. He was to receive his buyout in three $200,000 payments scheduled for February, May and August 2005—even as he was in his committee post. The firm would also keep Shockey in the family by hiring his wife, Alexandra—another former Lewis aide—as a consulting lobbyist.

Lobbying by spouses is legal if it stays within certain boundaries—staffers are generally not supposed to get their spouses special access—but can be controversial. Lewis spokesman John Scofield referred TIME to attorney William Oldaker, who said he helped Shockey and his wife keep the arrangement legal. Oldaker drafted a letter in which Lewis last May told the House ethics committee Shockey "will not involve himself in any matter in which his spouse is representing a client." The letter did not bar Shockey from work related to his own former clients, but Scofield says Shockey nonetheless informally recuses himself from such activity. Scofield said Alexandra Shockey, also a former Lewis aide, is still free to lobby Lewis himself, and other committee members—and her last name is certainly well known around the panel. The ethics committee, paralyzed last year by a partisan deadlock, never formally blessed the arrangement, Scofield says.

As Lewis took up the gavel in January 2005, Appropriations issued a press release heralding the return of former aides, including Shockey. The release—which disappeared from the committee web site after TIME made inquiries in recent weeks, a move that spokesman Scofield attributed to the tech department—says that "Shockey spent the last six years as a partner in the Washington, D.C.-based firm, Copeland, Lowery, Jacquez, Denton & Shockey." It said Shockey would "assist... with the Committee’s day-today [sic] operations including maintaining a close working relationship between the Committee, the elected leadership, the Budget Committee, and various authorizing committees."

No evidence has emerged to suggest that the Shockeys or Lewis have violated the law. Though a Republican, Shockey the lobbyist checked his loyalties enough to seek favor with key Democrats to the tune of $6,750 in campaign contributions. Much of it went to high-profile Appropriations Democrats—such as $1,000 each to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; House panel members Patrick Kennedy and John Murtha, who would later lambast President Bush over the Iraq war; and Senator Diane Feinstein—along with the many more thousands he showered on GOP members. "This ethically challenged behavior should speak volumes about the need for earmark reform," says Naomi Steiner of Citizens for Responsiblity and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

Lewis declined an interview, but gave TIME a statement in which he called Shockey a "fabulously talented individual [with a] long record of principled service." Lewis added that "Jeff and his wife Alex have gone out of their way to make sure they are strictly adhering to both the spirit and the letter of the law." Lewis spokesman Scofield said Shockey and his wife also would not comment. Lowery did not return a phone call.

With the help of another former Lewis aide who took over some Shockey accounts at his lobbying firm, many of Shockey's more than 50 former clients have continued to land tens of millions of dollars in earmarks, courtesy of the panel Shockey now helps Lewis run. Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which has extensively researched the Lewis-Shockey web, says, for example, that the police department in Redlands, Calif., (population: 63,591), received $1.5 million over three years for a community mapping and analysis program. The University of Redlands, meanwhile, received $2.7 million in 2004 and 2005 to map the habitat of the desert tortoise near a military facility.

Copeland, Lowery’s lobbying activity has already attracted unwanted attention. The Justice Department charges that an executive of ADCS, a defense contractor client, provided some of the $2.4 million in illegal gifts to Appropriations Committee member Duke Cunningham, who late last year resigned and pleaded guilty to taking bribes. Scofield, backed by disclosure filings, says Shockey did not lobby for ADCS. In fact, Scofield and Shockey’s attorney, Oldaker, insist Shockey plays no role in earmark decisions.

In recent weeks, Oldaker—also an earmark specialist who was recently dropped as treasurer for the political action committees of several senior Democratic senators, including Minority Leader Harry Reid, after articles drew attention to his lobbying activity—said Shockey has recused himself from any matter involving any of Copeland, Lowery’s 100 or so clients, though they haven’t put it in writing. "We probably, if we'd fast-forwarded to the current time, would have done that" a year ago, Oldaker said, referring to the ethics climate fostered by the Abramoff scandal. What remains to be seen is whether the new attention on the world of lobbying and earmarks leads to lasting reform or just a new p.r. strategy.