The Slickest Shop in Town

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A lobbyist can perform no greater favor for a lawmaker than to help get him elected. It is the ultimate political IOU, and it can be cashed in again and again. No other firm holds more of this precious currency than the Washington shop known as Black, Manafort.

Legally, there are two firms. Black, Manafort, Stone & Kelly, a lobbying operation, represents Bethlehem Steel, the Tobacco Institute, Herbalife, Angolan "Freedom Fighter" Jonas Savimbi and the governments of the Bahamas and the Philippines. Black, Manafort, Stone & Atwater, a political-consulting firm, has helped elect such powerful Republican politicians as Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Jesse Helms.

The political credentials of the partners are imposing. Charles Black, 38, was a top aide to Senator Robert Dole and the senior strategist for President Reagan's re-election campaign in 1984. Paul Manafort, 36, was the political director of the 1984 G.O.P. national convention. Roger Stone, 33, was the Eastern regional campaign director for Reagan in 1984 and is now one of Congressman Jack Kemp's chief political advisers. Peter Kelly, 48, was finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee from 1981 to 1985. Lee Atwater, 34, was Reagan's deputy campaign manager in 1984 and is now Vice President George Bush's chief political adviser. Alone among the firm's partners, Atwater sticks to advising electoral candidates and does not lobby.

The partners of Black, Manafort say that the lobbying and political- consulting functions are kept separate. "It's like a grocery store and a hardware store," insists Black. "You can't buy eggs at a hardware store and you can't buy tires at the grocery." Yet these are but fine distinctions in Washington, where the firm is considered one of the most ambidextrous in the business, the ultimate supermarket of influence peddling. "You are someone's political adviser, then you sell yourself to a corporation by saying you have a special relationship with Congress," says Democratic Media Consultant Robert Squier, who does no lobbying himself. Is it proper to get a politician elected, then turn around and lobby him? "It's a gray area," sidesteps Squier. Charges Fred Wertheimer, president of the public-interest lobbying group Common Cause: "It's institutionalized conflict of interest."

It certainly is good for business. The partners charge six-figure fees to lobby and six-figure fees to manage election campaigns. As a result, they take home six-figure salaries. (Their stated aim is to make $450,000 apiece each year; they are assumed to have achieved it last year.) They unabashedly peddle their access to the Reagan Administration. The firm's proposal soliciting the Bahamas as a client, for instance, touted the "personal relationships between State Department officials and Black, Manafort & Stone" that could be "utilized to upgrade a backchannel relationship in the economic and foreign policy spheres."

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