WASHINGTON — Susan Molinari had wrapped up her second week as Google’s chief Washington lobbyist when she got a call at home late on a Friday that blindsided her: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was fining Google $25,000 for having “deliberately impeded and delayed” an investigation into its Street View mapping project.
The finding, the result of an investigation into a Google project that swept up confidential personal information from home wireless networks while photographing streetscapes, sent shock waves through Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and the Washington team that Molinari had been hired to lead.
“Anybody who has worked in this town approaches days or missions like a campaign,” Molinari said in a recent interview. “So sometimes you’re on defense and sometimes you’re on offense.”
Since that night in April 2012, Molinari has vowed never again to let Washington surprise Google. A brassy, well-connected New York Republican who served seven years in the House, Molinari is paid handsomely to broaden the tech giant’s support beyond Silicon Valley Democrats and to lavish money and attention on selected Republicans. (Google employees gave 90 percent of their political donations to President Obama last year.)
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If she needs motivation, it occasionally comes from Microsoft, where the former Clinton operative Mark Penn oversaw an ad campaign portraying Google as a nefarious invader of privacy, which helped to keep the pressure on regulators to hold Google under the microscope.
To fight off the now constant scrutiny of Google as a behemoth monopoly that reaches far into people’s personal lives, Molinari has aggressively courted lawmakers and federal regulators as she has managed a Google effort that spent a record $18.2 million on lobbying in 2012.
The company that once had no use for Washington is now the eighth-biggest spender on lobbying in the capital, ahead of not only Microsoft but also mainstays like Lockheed Martin.
Today she is pushing Congress on a range of issues critical to Google, including a proposed overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that would revise rules governing when and how foreign students — particularly those studying engineering or mathematics — could remain in the United States after finishing their degrees.
Molinari worked with Google’s lawyers this year to help fend off an antitrust lawsuit after a two-year investigation of the company by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC); began navigating another FTC antitrust inquiry into Google’s practices; and continues to spend hours pushing the company’s case in congressional offices on Capitol Hill.
“We thought it was important to have somebody who could reach across the aisle, or appeal to both sides of the aisle, and Susan was that kind of person,” said David Drummond, the chief legal officer at Google.
Republicans have long been wary of Google, not least because of the Democratic politics of its billionaire executive chairman, Eric Schmidt. But Molinari, who supports abortion rights and was once a close ally of Newt Gingrich, has entree into Republican offices and an eye for how to dole out campaign contributions.
In November, 10 Senate Republicans sent a letter to the FTC warning against “unauthorized use” of its powers in the antitrust investigation into the way Google arranges its Web search results, which the FTC closed in January without bringing charges.
Six of those Republicans, including John Thune of South Dakota, now the ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, received a total of $28,500 from Google’s political-action committee. An FTC official said the letter did not affect its investigation.
Overall, Google donated about $1 million to candidates in the 2012 election cycle, and about 3 percent more went to Republican incumbents than Democratic ones.
Molinari declined to say how much Google pays her. But based on comparisons with trade-group lobbyists, Molinari is probably paid into seven figures in salary and stock. Representatives of the pharmaceutical and cable industries, for example, which each spent close to Google’s $18 million in lobbying in 2012, earned salaries of $2 million to $3 million.
Unlike Penn, the former Clinton operative and political brawler, Molinari has always hidden her edge behind a sunny exterior. Her father is Guy Molinari, the former Staten Island borough president and a former five-term member of Congress, and her husband is Bill Paxon, also a former member of Congress and now a lobbyist. In such company she has learned how to work with competitors. At one time, she was the only Republican member of the New York City Council.
In Congress, she was known as a conciliator who usually played good cop to Gingrich’s intimidator, a 5-feet-2-inch former “Most Perky” from Staten Island whose people skills have served her well at Google. After a recent company symposium, Molinari made easy cocktail chatter with technology enthusiasts and then stopped briefly to rest her feet, revealing Google-green toenail polish.
“In some ways, she is the opposite of the stereotypical Google employee — an intense, code-writing engineer,” said Joe Lockhart, a former adviser to President Clinton and now a lobbyist. “I don’t think you grow up in the Republican Party in Staten Island without a certain level of toughness, but one thing about Susan is she is able to be tough in a way that doesn’t alienate people.”
Google did not even have a Washington operation until 2005, a year after the company’s initial stock offering. “Like a lot of technology companies, they tried to put off ‘growing up in D.C.’ for as long as they could,” said Marvin Ammori, a legal adviser on Internet law who has worked with Google.
The Washington lobbying operation had grown to five people in 2007 and 30 people by the time Molinari arrived last year. It now numbers more than 35, including two people Molinari hired who once worked for Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. Google’s entire Washington office, including engineers and lawyers, numbers more than 100 people.
Like many large companies, Google has drawn criticism for making frequent use of the revolving door between government and those who benefit from it. Though she left Congress in 1997 for an ill-fated nine-month run as the co-host of the CBS program “Saturday Morning,” Molinari spent about 14 years as a Washington lobbyist before signing up with Google.
Of the 14 registered lobbyists on Google’s staff, 11 formerly worked in government.
“The less charitable view is these are people who are paid to peddle influence,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics. “That is reflective of the importance they’ve placed on that experience. That doesn’t happen randomly.”
In addition to lobbying on immigration, Molinari is also pressing Congress to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, to make it harder for law enforcement to gain access to emails, and to pass legislation that would stymie the power of “patent trolls,” companies that buy and stockpile patents — and then sue companies like Google to protect them.
Not least, Molinari and Google are pushing the FCC to keep ample space available for Wi-Fi, which is critical to Google’s existence, as the commission moves toward an auction of the nation’s wireless airwaves.
Upon joining Google, she had a crash course in Internet operations and policy and went through a steep learning curve.
“I do sleep with the phone, with the emails right next to me,” Molinari said. “I have become that person who checks them right before I go to bed and when I wake up in the morning.”