Lob­by­ists with ties to Trump reap mil­lions

Al­lies thrive though pres­i­dent de­cried spe­cial in­ter­ests

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Fre­dreka Schouten

WASHINGTON – Lob­by­ing firms man­aged by for­mer cam­paign aides, fundrais­ers and oth­ers with ties to Pres­i­dent Trump and Vice Pres­i­dent Pence have col­lected at least $28 mil­lion in fed­eral lob­by­ing fees since Trump as­sumed the pres­i­dency, a USA TO­DAY anal­y­sis found.

Lead­ing the way: Bal­lard Part­ners, over­seen by Brian Bal­lard, a vet­eran Florida lob­by­ist who raised money for Trump’s cam­paign and in­au­gu­ra­tion. Its lead­er­ship in­cludes Susie Wiles, who ran Trump’s win­ning 2016 cam­paign in Florida.

Although Trump cam­paigned on a pledge to “drain the swamp” of Washington spe­cial in­ter­ests, his for­mer po­lit­i­cal aides and other fig­ures in his or­bit are build­ing larger pro­files in the world of in­flu­ence he crit­i­cized.

In all, reg­is­tered lob­by­ists with ties to Trump and Pence have lead­er­ship roles in at least 10 firms in Washington, a USA TO­DAY re­view shows. Other fed­eral lob­by­ists with grow­ing client lists and ties to the ad­min­is­tra­tion in­clude Pence’s for­mer chief of staff Bill Smith, whose clients in­clude AT&T; Vic­tor Smith, who served as Pence’s com­merce sec­re­tary in In­di­ana; and Barry Ben­nett, a for­mer Trump cam­paign aide who built a firm with a ros­ter of do­mes­tic and deep-pock­eted in­ter­na­tional clients.

Their lob­by­ing is le­gal, and a spend­ing surge is com­mon when a new pres­i­dent en­ters the White House.

Trump’s per­sonal at­tor­ney Michael Co­hen faces scru­tiny about the big sums his shell com­pany, Es­sen­tial Con­sul­tants, re­ceived from blue-chip firms for in­sights into the ad­min­is­tra­tion. Since Trump’s elec­tion, Co­hen has re­ceived more than $2.3 mil­lion in pay­ments from cor­po­rate clients, in­clud­ing $600,000 from tele­com gi­ant AT&T and $1.2 mil­lion from Swiss­based drug­maker No­var­tis.

Co­hen, the target of a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion in New York about his busi­ness deal­ings, is not reg­is­tered as a lob­by­ist and in­stead cast him­self as a

con­sul­tant in reach­ing the closed-door deals.

White House of­fi­cials did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment Thurs­day about the lob­by­ing ac­tiv­ity.

Of Trump al­lies who went the lob­by­ing route, Bal­lard has been among the most suc­cess­ful. His firm has pulled in nearly $14 mil­lion in lob­by­ing fees since it be­gan its Washington op­er­a­tions in Fe­bru­ary 2017 and has rep­re­sented more than 70 fed­eral lob­by­ing clients, in­clud­ing on­line re­tail gi­ant Ama­zon, re­ports filed with Congress show.

Bal­lard Part­ners ranks as Washington’s 11th-largest lob­by­ing oper­a­tion by revenue, ac­cord­ing to the non-par­ti­san Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics and boasts sev­eral well-known Democrats on staff, in­clud­ing for­mer Florida con­gress­man Robert Wexler.

Bal­lard, who counted Trump among his long­time Florida lob­by­ing clients, said his firm sells ex­per­tise, not ac­cess. “I’m proud of our as­so­ci­a­tion with the ad­min­is­tra­tion,” Bal­lard told USA TO­DAY. “But we strive dili­gently to prove our worth based on mer­its, not on who did what dur­ing the cam­paign. That’s in the past.”

Qatar flexes lob­by­ing mus­cle

In ad­di­tion to its grow­ing ros­ter of do­mes­tic clients, Bal­lard’s firm at­tracts in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion.

Records main­tained by an arm of the Justice Depart­ment that mon­i­tors for­eign lob­by­ing ac­tiv­ity show Bal­lard’s firm signed a one-year con­tract worth as much as $2.1 mil­lion with the govern­ment of Qatar. Bal­lard said the work is fo­cused mostly on po­ten­tial Qatari in­vest­ments in Florida

Ben­nett, a for­mer Trump cam­paign ad­viser who over­sees a lob­by­ing firm and global con­sul­tancy, earns even more from Qatar through a con­tract he signed last July as ten­sions be­tween Qatar and its neigh­bors wors­ened.

Qatar waged an in­tense lob­by­ing cam­paign to win over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion amid a re­gional dis­pute with Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates and its other neigh­bors.

Fed­eral records show Qatar agreed to pay Ben­nett’s firm $150,000 a month — or $1.8 mil­lion over a year. The govern­ment boosted that to $500,000 a month for a four-month pe­riod late last year, de­liv­er­ing $2 mil­lion to Ben­nett’s Av­enue Strate­gies Global from Septem­ber to De­cem­ber.

Ben­nett, who helped man­age Ben Carson’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign be­fore join­ing Trump’s camp, said he pro­vides Qatar and its royal fam­ily with strate­gic ad­vice about nav­i­gat­ing the U.S. govern­ment.

Last June, Trump sided with Saudi Ara­bia and three other Gulf na­tions in their efforts to iso­late Qatar. In tweets, Trump in­di­cated that his push to end the fund­ing of “rad­i­cal ide­ol­ogy” prompted the four-state em­bargo against the oil-rich Qatar.

Ben­nett said he was meet­ing with Qatari of­fi­cials in Doha when Trump’s tweets landed.

“It freaked them out,” he said. “It was a bap­tism. I just calmed them down and said, ‘This is bark, not bite.’ ”

As Qatar’s lob­by­ing efforts in­ten­si­fied, Trump’s views soft­ened. Last month, he praised the coun­try as a part­ner in the fight against ter­ror­ism dur­ing a White House meet­ing with its leader, Tamim bin Ha­mad Al Thani.

In an in­ter­view with USA TO­DAY, Ben­nett de­fended his work as a lob­by­ist, say­ing he is trans­par­ent about his ac­tiv­ity — un­like Co­hen, who made se­cret deals.

Un­der fed­eral rules, peo­ple who make more than one con­tact with a fed­eral of­fi­cial on be­half of a client and spent at least 20% of their time on lob­by­ing in a three-month pe­riod are re­quired to regis­ter as a lob­by­ist.

“If you are go­ing to do the work, re­port it,” Ben­nett said.

Nei­ther Co­hen nor his at­tor­ney Steve Ryan re­sponded to an in­ter­view re­quest.

Last week, the Pub­lic Cit­i­zen watch­dog group filed com­plaints against Co­hen, ar­gu­ing that he vi­o­lated fed­eral ethics and lob­by­ing laws by fail­ing to regis­ter as a lob­by­ist.

Fred Wertheimer, who over­sees the watch­dog group Democ­racy 21, said the race to make money off Trump con­nec­tions mir­rors the pres­i­dent’s de­ci­sion to re­tain own­er­ship of his real es­tate and brand­ing em­pire while serv­ing in the White House.

“When the tone is ‘I’m go­ing to make money off my ad­min­is­tra­tion,’ how can I com­plain about any­one else do­ing it?” he said.

White House of­fi­cials said Trump re­mains com­mit­ted to his “drain the swamp” prom­ise and did not take ac­tion to ben­e­fit Co­hen’s clients. Last week, when asked about Co­hen’s closed-door deals with cor­po­ra­tions, White House spokes­woman Sarah San­ders sin­gled out the Justice Depart­ment’s move to block a merger be­tween AT&T and Time Warner as proof Trump isn’t un­duly in­flu­enced by spe­cial in­ter­ests.

AT&T’s agree­ment with Co­hen sought his ad­vice on the pro­posed $85 bil­lion merger, which Trump de­nounced on the cam­paign trail in 2016.

“It’s pretty clear that the Justice Depart­ment op­posed the merger, and so cer­tainly the pres­i­dent has not been in­flu­enced or his ad­min­is­tra­tion in­flu­enced by any out­side spe­cial in­ter­ests,” San­ders said.

Lob­by­ing’s ‘cycli­cal’ na­ture

The USA TO­DAY re­view shows Barnes & Thorn­burg, where long­time Pence ally Bob Grand serves as manag­ing part­ner, see­ing big growth in the Trump era. The firm took in nearly $5.5 mil­lion in lob­by­ing fees last year — the most it has earned in Washington lob­by­ing in a sin­gle year and more than dou­ble its lob­by­ing re­ceipts from 2016, ac­cord­ing to data com­piled by the Cen­ter for Re­spon­sive Pol­i­tics.

Clients, rang­ing from U.S. Steel to the drug in­dus­try’s trade as­so­ci­a­tion, paid $1.6 mil­lion to the firm dur­ing the first three months of this year, con­gres­sional records show.

Grand is slated to ap­pear with Pence at a fundraiser this week that will ben­e­fit Repub­li­can can­di­dates for the U.S. Se­nate. In an in­ter­view Thurs­day, Grand at­trib­uted the rise in lob­by­ing ac­tiv­ity to the “cycli­cal” na­ture of lob­by­ing, rather than any spe­cial ad­van­tage the firm en­joys.

“Does your busi­ness go up in some sense?” Grand said about the surge in busi­ness. “Yes, be­cause it’s a Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Brian Bal­lard

MARK WIL­SON/GETTY IM­AGES

Pres­i­dent Trump praises Qatar as an ally against ter­ror­ism April 10 dur­ing a meet­ing with Emir Tamim bin Ha­mad Al Thani.

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