I Was a Teenage Unlobbyist

An Interview with Norman Ball

The recent TPP fracas has people wondering aloud about the lobbying function in America with an intensity reminiscent of the days of Jack Abramoff. Alas, lobbying does not yield itself to a neat, singular description.

For instance last year, Tim LaPira, a political scientist from James Madison University suggested that the $3.3 billion spent on lobbying in 2012 was actually closer to $7 billion due to the massive number of unregistered lobbyists. Further, unregistered lobbyists have rarely, if ever, been pursued by the Office of Congressional Ethics or the Department of Justice.

Between 1995 and 2010, only three lawsuits filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office against lobbyists were settled, and since 2010, at least five suits have been filed related to Honest Leadership and Open Government Act (HLOGA) and Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) violations. There are, however, signs of heightened awareness and enforcement interest emanating from within the Department of Justice.

Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with Norman Ball* about his particular experiences in this arena. Norm is a business developer, program manager and writer in Northern Virginia. After encountering some of his recent lobbying-related articles on-line, I reached out to better understand his interest in the field. What follows is the result of that meeting.

Matthew Barnes: First of all, Norm, thank you for helping to shed light on this long-overlooked and shadowy area of lobbying. We should probably familiarize folks with what we mean by an unlobbyist. I took a swing at defining it above. What’s your definition?

Norman Ball: By way of analogy, Matt, I would only add that an unlobbyist is like a practicing attorney who is not state-barred or an individual who practices medicine without a license. These folks are often employed by their clients via business development contracts. In some cases, the client hasn’t performed the necessary due diligence to ascertain the professional legitimacy of the individual. In fairness, how many people would think to question an attorney’s bona fides when they encounter him in the ‘Attorney’ section of the Yellow Pages? Many unlobbyists exploit this naiveté.

MB: Of course.

NB: Other times, the clients are either unaware of HLOGA’s ethical implications, or perhaps turn a blind eye because they feel they’re getting an insider on the cheap. But again, the onus rests with the individual who’s essentially orchestrating the deception. Most clients, I believe, are unwittingly implicated.

MB: Everybody wants bang for their buck as long as it’s on the right side of the law. (Chuckling) I still don’t know how one who is engaged in the world of lobbying can still be unaware of HLOGA, especially with extensive compliance resources out there. Why don’t the organizations tasked with the enforcement of lobbying make unlobbying a higher priority?

NB: Interestingly, the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House tend to focus their attention on those who conscientiously register and file the necessary reports. Thus unlobbyists often travel under the radar on Capitol Hill. I liken it to the police stopping a bank robber just outside the bank only to let him go when they discover he’s not a registered bank robber.

MB: You might say registered lobbyists are held to a higher standard simply because they do the right thing by disclosing their profession. That seems a tad unfair, especially given the image problems lobbyists must already contend with.

NB: An image problem created in part by unlobbyists.

MB: Exactly. So in order to get your own arms around the lobbying universe, you conducted a series of interviews. They’re very good by the way.

NB: Thank you. Although we haven’t gotten to the particulars of my situation, I came to suspect that, contrary to the assurances of the individual I was working with, he was, in fact, operating outside of the law.

teenage lobbyist2(Art work by Norman Ball)

MB: In your interview with Craig Holman at Dissident Voice, lobbyist for Public Citizen and a driving force behind the drafting and passage of HLOGA, he implies there may be ethical and legal implications for both the Congressional staffs and clients who, knowingly or otherwise, engage with unlobbyists.

NB: Yes, he does. Look, I’m not sure whether a ‘carding system’ is required. But transparency and full disclosure are critical to the democratic process. Surely some sort of verification protocol is warranted in order to protect, not only the integrity of the system, but those who register as the law requires of them.

For the elected official and his staff too, they have a right to know whether they are sitting across the table from a citizen petitioning a genuine civic grievance, a registered lobbyist or a businessman with an undisclosed economic interest who’s sort of unethically ‘playing the gap’. As an elected official, I think I’d be upset if the latter posed himself as the former since it could rebound back on my office, creating at the very least the appearance of impropriety.

MB: That makes sense. Appearances can be everything in politics.

NB: As for the unlobbyist and his client, if the former has misrepresented his professional credentials to the latter, that seems more of a contractual or business risk issue. The analogy would be hiring an individual to audit your books who you subsequently discover is not a CPA. We’re in the realm of effective due diligence or, in the event of lapsed due diligence, potential grounds for dismissal upon subsequent discovery.

MB: I share your concern about the troubling opacity of the lobbying profession. Unfortunately the ‘Casino Jack’ Abramoff, whom I note you interviewed recently at Dissident Voice, stereotype is embedded in the public psyche. No one would argue the vast majority of lobbyists fulfill a crucial role in the legislative process and are hard-working and ethical professionals. It’s a shame a few rotten apples create an image problem for the majority.

lobbyist4Mr. Tin Man Goes To Washington (Credit: Norman Ball)

NB: I concur fully with that, Matt—both with the necessity of the lobbying function for the promulgation of good law and with the competency and integrity I’ve encountered in my dealings with industry professionals. For example, Meredith McGehee, Policy Director at the Campaign Legal Center and a long-time registered lobbyist herself was a great source of information as was the Sunlight Foundation’s Jenn Topper.

Clearly, the issues facing the government today are simply too complex to be dealt with, absent competent expertise. One current debate is whether this expertise should reside within government itself or should instead be ‘fed’ to it by external conduits such as lobbyists. Lee Drutman (Senior Fellow at New America), whom I interviewed recently, makes an excellent (and highly readable) case for the absolute criticality of the lobbying function in his new book, The Business of America is Lobbying. However, he feels this information-gathering function should be brought more under the direct auspices of Congress itself.

Then you have Abramoff who’s ideologically a small government guy. Perhaps not surprisingly, his current reform efforts focus more on a ‘less government equals less lobbying’ theme. Another angle arrives via Public Citizen’s Holman, a huge advocate for increased transparency and accountability. These varying approaches notwithstanding, you’ll find little argument from any of them that traveling salesmen in the Senate cloak room are not conducive to the public interest.

MB: I’m seeing more energy on the HLOGA enforcement side. What about you?

NB: There’s no doubt the secret TPP trade bill has stoked populist ire against hidden corporate hands. But even before that, DOJ spokesman Bill Miller, who I’m speaking with (and who’s requested a copy of this interview by the way), said that, “the issue of illegally unregistered lobbyists isn’t outside the purview of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.”

So while Congress may be more focused on registered lobbyists, DOJ recognizes a broader mandate.

MB: There is movement within this broader mandate to be sure.

NB: Yes, indeed. I am speaking with some advocacy groups who are eager to put more fire beneath the unlobbyist issue. They just needed some case studies and a ‘poster child’ or two. That’s where my story’s helpful. These sorts of ethics drives tend to galvanize around an Abramoff-type figure.

MB: Great background. Now to your story. How did your involvement all come about?

NB: Well, without delving all the background details, I got involved with a gentleman who had had extensive prior consulting experience with the Department of Energy, specifically the nuclear division. He’d secured a business development contract with a manufacturer of patented dissolvable nuclear suits or what the industry calls Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

MB: Sort of like DuPont’s Tyvek suits?

NB: Exactly. In fact, part of the initiative involved attempting to dislodge Tyvek suits from the Federal space as well as the traditional laundered, or reusable, suits. This company had achieved a commanding market share in the private sector. However, they’d had limited success with Uncle Sam.

As you mention Tyvek, another important point is that DuPont sustains a significant Government Affairs effort which, one suspects, operates within the law. There’s something patently unfair about a legally compliant and significant investment (estimated at $9 million in 2014 according to Open Secrets) being undermined by what amounts to an underfunded, unregistered competitive rearguard action.

MB: That almost goes without saying. Non-compliance shouldn’t enjoy a built-in competitive advantage. What gives here?

NB: Again, the profession could do more to amplify its concerns. Hopefully this interview will help raise awareness. Anyway, the game plan was to break the bureaucratic impasse by sending letters to various Congressmen and Senators in an effort to coax a letter from one of them to Secretary of Energy Moniz, urging him to initiate a departmental review that would include the represented product. To that end, I undertook research, visited Congressional offices, DOE nuclear field facilities such as Hanford and the manufacturer’s facility down south, co-wrote explanatory letters and white papers, developed marketing materials and videos, accompanied and overseen in most instances by my colleague.

MB: What aroused your concerns initially?

NB: Well, the structure of the letters to Congress and the whole meeting approach was, I felt, less than above-board. I had deferred to my colleague’s long history of interfacing with Congress, and had even asked him on one occasion whether he was a lobbyist (he wasn’t) and whether that presented a problem. He assured me he was acting in the capacity of a concerned citizen and thus was merely petitioning Congress in that capacity.

MB: How did you feel the letters were misleading?

NB: They would begin by describing my colleague’s background interfacing with DOE in order to imply—or at least suggest—his professional standing and the source of his expertise on the matter. From there, the letter would tout the advantages of the product he was representing and end with an appeal to have the relevant Congressional office contact, as I mentioned above, the DOE Secretary. Stapled to the back of the letters was the company’s sales literature. So the sales objective was barely camouflaged. However, the implicit economic self-interest was never discussed, and at times deflected altogether.

MB: That’s interesting. How did the various Congressional offices respond to these letters? Are there any specific occasions that stick out in your mind to give our readership a sense of how ‘direct sales lobbying’ works?

NB: Well, more often than not we’d speak with a mid-level staffer who’d sort of forward the information into a black hole. This came about often by talking our way into the office based on a previously sent letter.

MB: Can you relate any of the more fruitful meetings?

NB: One occurred in mid-2014 with Rep. Charles “Chuck” Fleischmann (R) of Tennessee’s 3rd District and his Legislative Director, Alek Vey. The Congressman is on the House Energy and Water Subcommittee and has been a committed and passionate leader in nuclear waste cleanup. DOE’s decommissioned Hanford Site is also in his district. It was a very interesting meeting.

MB: How so?

NB: My colleague launched into his pitch about going back a long way on Capitol Hill as a page, having an Uncle who was a former Senator, etc. As a 79-year-old with a cane, my colleague strikes a grandfatherly pose which gets him more time than probably you or I would on our own. The persona was that of a retired grandfather concerned about the nuclear waste problem and wanting to leave a better planet behind for his grandchildren.

MB: And yet, stapled to the back of the letter were un-grandfatherly sales brochures?

NB: Yes.

MB: How did this selfless appeal go over?

NB: You have to think these guys get hit on all the time for one favor or another. So I think their antennae are always up for just about anything. Fleishmann was clearly listening, as you might expect, given his interest in the subject matter. Yet as he and Vey flipped though the pitch material, they would sort of glance back and forth at one another, asking at regular intervals who exactly we were and what our interests were, to which my colleague would revert back to grandfather mode and regale them with tales of yesteryear.

MB: …all the while avoiding disclosure of his ‘official unofficial’ capacity as unlobbyist.

NB: I found it all vaguely humorous though troubling at the same time. In fact, it was after this meeting that I pointedly asked him whether he was a lobbyist and if not, did he perhaps need to be one? He conceded he wasn’t, but again dismissed the necessity of it. As he’d been involved on the Hill for decades, I deferred to his greater knowledge. Throughout the meeting, Congressman Fleischmann and Vey were polite, respectful, attentive, but in the end, I would say, a little confused over the purpose and intent of our mission. Who could blame them? But that’s entirely my own impression. To the best of my knowledge as of December, nothing had come of the contact.

MB: All in all, it sounds like a deliberately mixed message. Caveat emptor.

NB: It felt a little sideways to me. On the Executive side, we had meetings with what HLOGA defines as Covered Officials. By the end of 2014, I was feeling uncomfortable about the whole undertaking. My discomfort morphed into resentment and annoyance as I realized I’d been conscripted into what amounted to a legally dubious undertaking. It also prompted me to pursue a better understanding of Federal lobbying disclosure guidelines and sort of educate myself.

MB: Well, you’ve certainly done that, and educated others in the process too, I might add.

NB: Thank you, Matt. I appreciate that. If my efforts help others, that’s great.

MB: What advice would you give for industry participants, both government and client-side, to avoid getting tied up in questionable activities?

NB: In two words, due diligence. When someone knocks on your door offering to trim your trees, it’s good practice to request verification of their contractor license. There are excellent databases of up-to-date lobbying information. The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) mandates that the Senate and House maintain databases too. Those can be found here and here, respectively.

As a matter of course, these databases should be accessed by all parties. Congressional staffers tend to err on the side of openness and accessibility in the interest of providing responsive constituent services. However, this openness can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous parties. At the least suggestion of commercial intent, a visitor’s lobbying credentials should be requested, in the spirit of fostering civic discourse and discouraging undisclosed special interests.

MB: What further steps are you involved in to bring this issue to proper closure?

NB: Well, I’m talking to a number of entities both within the Senate, House and on the Executive side as well as advocacy groups who’ve expressed an interest in raising awareness of the unlobbyist phenomenon.

MB: Thanks so much for talking with me today, Norm, it has been a pleasure!

NB: You too, Matt. Thank you.

* Norman Ball can be reached at: moc.liamgnull@wonsserpsg. Visit his blog Full-Spectum Domino to keep abreast. An excerpt of his latest book Between River and Rock: How I Resolved Television in Six Easy Payments is available at the Museum of American Poetics (MAP). He also has an eBook out on the impending currency reset (Eye Am Eye Press, 2015).

Matthew Barnes is a Content Project Manager with Columbia Books & Information Services where he authors the LobbyBlog for Lobbyists.info. Matthew can be reached at mbarnes@columbiabooks.com Read other articles by Matthew, or visit Matthew's website.