POLITICS MARCH 25, 2002
For Washington lobbyists, these were supposed to be the salad days. The Bush administration was to be their playground, the regulatory agencies their dolls to dress up and knock down. And on paper they’ve made out pretty well—tax cuts, the squashing of costly ergonomics rules, favorable appointments throughout the government. But for all their influence, D.C. lobbyists have failed to attain one elusive goal: public respect. During the 2000 primaries, John McCain denounced them as one side of the “iron triangle” of special interests that corrupt American politics. Then, as Bush took office, Jack Quinn’s role in the Marc Rich pardon reminded the nation once again why it doesn’t trust influence-peddlers. And finally, the Enron debacle turned everyone in Washington into an anti-corporate crusader-of-convenience. As a vote on campaign finance reform approaches, the lobbying community’s old friends can’t betray it fast enough.
At such a moment, you’d think lobbyists would turn to their prime professional organization, the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), for a little p.r. boost. But ALL isn’t in much of a position to help: For the last three months the 600-member group has been embroiled in a vicious internecine squabble over allegations that President Jim Albertine has been misusing his ALL position to fatten his own wallet and that of a crony. The result is more than a touch comical: Washington lobbyists have begun to lobby their fellow lobbyists to remove the lobbying league president for behaving like, well, a lobbyist.
WRIGHT ANDREWS, A representative of the finance industry and a past president of ALL, is the Washington lobbying community’s leading moralist, its resident goo-goo. It’s not an easy identity to inhabit. (For instance, prominently placed on Andrews’s windowsill is a framed copy of a Washingtonian magazine spread that features a photo of him along with the headline “SHOW ME THE MONEY.”) Oxymoronic though it may sound, Andrews considers K Street a fundamentally virtuous community whose image must not be sullied by malefactors. “There’s no doubt. We need to deal with our problem cases,” explains Andrews, a veteran of retired Georgia Senator Sam Nunn’s office, in his charmingly thick Charlie Crocker accent. “There are some bad apples out there like there are bad priests.” So Andrews has tried to do his part to clean up the profession. Last March he published a self-flagellating op-ed in The Washington Post endorsing the McCain-Feingold bill. “I have engaged in many activities most reformers abhor,” he confessed. He also led the committee that two years ago dramatically stiffened ALL’s code of professional conduct.
But his campaign for ethical lobbying escalated last December 5, after he received a mass e-mail sent by ALL President Jim Albertine. The note announced a conference about Capitol Hill security, featuring congressional leaders and police brass; registration cost $115 a head. At first the conference seemed worthy enough to Andrews. Because of new post-9/11 security restrictions, lobbyists were having a near impossible time navigating the Capitol. They traded horror stories about standing in endless lines alongside tourists and complained that favorite locales for cornering congresspersons had been cordoned off. “It’s a real issue,” Andrews told me.
But moments after reading Albertine’s e-mail, Andrews got a call from an ALL friend: “Did you read Jim’s e-mail?” “Yeah, sounds good.” “No, Wright, read it again.” So he did. And upon this second read, Andrews grasped the truth: Though the e-mail said the event was being “Organized by Jim Albertine, President, American League of Lobbyists,” it wasn’t an ALL event at all, but rather a freelance operation. Albertine, he surmised, was trading on the ALL name to make some cash. And not just for himself. At the bottom of the e-mail, Albertine announced “meeting services provided by Radnor, Inc.”—a company run by Albertine’s longtime friend and business partner (and another former ALL president) Ken Feltman. What made Albertine’s actions still more irksome was that only a bit earlier Wade Williams (yet another past president of the group) had proposed that a similar event be held by ALL, and Albertine had dismissed the possibility. “I got back word,” says Williams, “[that] Jim ... wasn’t interested.”
In a fit of pique, Andrews fired off an angry e-mail to Albertine: “You simply can not do things like this. It’s wrong and prohibited!” Along with five other past presidents, he began to compile the case against Albertine—a case they compare, without irony, to the Enron scandal. Initially, Albertine didn’t dispute the facts. In conversations with the past presidents, he even handed them more rope. He admitted that he was organizing a coalition of interest groups to lobby on the security issue—a coalition that the presidents were quick to insinuate would generate lobbying fees for Albertine. A Web search uncovered still more damning evidence against Albertine: a site called lobbyists.net, claiming to be “a service of the American League of Lobbyists.” At the top of the page, it described something called “the lobbyists network,” a guide “to find a lobbyist who can help you solve your problem.” It linked to Albertine and Feltman’s companies—but no others.
By mid-December the past presidents had submitted a brief documenting their gripes to the ALL board—a brief that somehow later found its way into the pages of The Washington Post. In late January they went to present evidence to the board in person at its monthly meeting, held at the office of Albertine’s newly hired lawyer. But when Andrews and the others arrived at the meeting, Albertine’s lawyer informed them they were not on the list of invitees. As they sat stewing, waiting for their friends on the board to vouch for them, a receptionist emerged. She told them: Only current board members allowed. After waiting for 45 minutes, the delegation of past presidents left, humiliated. The following afternoon the humiliation was compounded when they read an e-mail from Albertine describing the meeting’s outcome: Yes, the board would investigate Albertine’s conflict of interest, but it would “also investigate the leaks and other dissemination of the memo from the past presidents.” The board was investigating them. What’s more, the names of the investigating committee had been suggested by Albertine himself.
And indeed, there was no shortage of things for Albertine’s committee to investigate. According to Feltman, anonymous notes had showed up at the Employers Council on Flexible Compensation—a client of his and Albertine’s—in envelopes without return addresses. One accused Feltman of cutting himself checks from the ALL account. Another accompanied a copy of the leaked brief: “Conflict of interest is among the most serious charges,” it stated bluntly.
AFTER HEARING ANDREWS’S side of the story, two days later I visited Albertine’s office. When I asked him to describe ALL’s purpose, he mentioned two of its primary functions: to enhance the reputation of lobbyists by promoting high ethical standards and to provide members with networking and business-enhancing opportunities. If Andrews presents himself as the epitome of the former goal, Albertine seems to personify the latter.
Albertine and his older brother Jack run a $1 millionper-year boutique operation that has represented association executives, Fruit of the Loom, and oil pipelines. With his glasses and carefully parted hair, he looks like a smaller Trent Lott. It took mere minutes for him to rip into Andrews and the other past presidents, whom he accused of running ALL like a “circle jerk.” Andrews, he said, considers himself “some sort of guru,” but is really motivated by old “vendettas” (he wouldn’t describe them on the record) as well as “pure and simple arrogance.”
When it came to rebutting their charges, though, he was less energetic. What about lobbyists.net? His friend Feltman had assured him the site was a prototype—approved by the ALL board—that accidentally remained online for two years. Why didn’t he let ALL sponsor the event? “People don’t want to be associated with greedy lobbyists.” (Not exactly the attitude one expects from a man tasked with burnishing the profession’s image.) Albertine noted that he had sent out a clarification and apology for anyone who thought the event was sponsored by ALL, and he had offered to “swallow the costs and let them host the event themselves.” He continued, “The conference is off. It’s not going to happen. They’re trying to hang me over an event that’s not going to ever take place.”
LISTENING TO ANDREWS and Albertine trade body blows, you might think K Street has been engulfed by controversy. But that’s not quite the case. In fact, when online magazine influenceonline.net surveyed top lobbyists to get their impressions of the scandal, the reactions were almost universal. “I’ve never heard it discussed one way or another,” said former South Carolina Representative Butler Derrick Jr., a partner at Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. A senior Democratic lobbyist was even more dismissive: “A lot of [ALL’s members] are probably note-takers ... looking to be the next Bob Walker or Tommy Boggs. It’s not an organization that’s at all effective.”
I visited another ALL board member, he confirmed this impression. “It’s like academia,” he told me. “The debates are intense because the stakes aren’t high.” He glanced back at the door, as if to make sure there were no eavesdroppers. “Here’s the truth: I wish to God I’d never got involved with these people.” When I mentioned that the group seemed to include very few brand- name lobbyists, he didn’t disagree. With a few exceptions, ALL’s stalwarts are the anonymous working class of the lobbying profession. They toil for the Recreational Fishing Alliance and the Chemical Safety Board. They dine at the Palm but don’t have their faces painted on the wall. It’s not a happy combination: They get all the stigma of their profession without its gigantic paychecks. Which, in the end, may help explain both Albertine’s need to push the envelope and Andrews’s obsession with respect. After all, the big-time lobbyists don’t need an organization to help them network. And they make enough money that they can afford not to give a damn about respectability. Or, as National Journal reported über-lobbyist Tommy Boggs saying at a 1998 ALL luncheon to discuss the profession’s image as “hired guns”: “I don’t care. I just wanted to be hired.”
This article originally ran in the March 25, 2002 issue of the magazine.