At least 17 former members of Sen. Patty Murray's staff have slid over to the lobbying sector, capitalizing on insider knowledge and connections to win favor for their clients, including lucrative earmarks.
When Sen. Patty Murray announced earlier this month that she had inserted $57 million in earmarks in the 2011 defense appropriations bill, she touted the two dozen projects as critical jobs-creation spending.
It was another election-season reminder of the 18-year Democratic incumbent’s ability to steer federal dollars back home as a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
What Murray didn’t mention is that at least nine of her defense-bill earmarks — worth $19.5 million — were awarded to clients of her former aides who now work as lobbyists.
At least 17 former Murray staff members have slid over to the lobbying sector, capitalizing on insider knowledge and connections to win favor for their clients, including lucrative earmarks.
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They include Murray’s former chief of staff, Rick Desimone, who landed a $1 million earmark in the defense bill for a Canadian medical company with offices in Kirkland. The bill was an even bigger win for Shay Hancock, Murray’s former lead defense staffer, who lobbied for three firms that got $7.5 million in earmarks.
Murray’s clout as an appropriator helps explain why lobbyists and their firms — including those that employ her former staffers — are among her biggest campaign contributors.
Despite her own network of lobbyist backers, Murray’s campaign and state Democrats have relentlessly portrayed her Republican opponent, Dino Rossi, as unethical because of his ties to lobbyists. In particular, they’ve hit Rossi for business deals with two statehouse lobbyists more than a decade ago when he was a state senator.
The role of former Murray aides in getting earmarks is an example of Washington, D.C.’s, “revolving door” of congressional staff leaving for the lobbying world. Those lobbyists and their clients often contribute generously to help get their benefactors re-elected.
In Murray’s case, the staffers-turned-lobbyists and their clients who got earmarks in the 2011 defense bill have given $80,000 since 2006 to the senator’s campaign and to M-PAC, her political-action committee, according to contribution data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.
There is nothing illegal about former aides lobbying their ex-bosses, so long as ethics rules are followed and the lawmaker sponsoring the earmark doesn’t personally profit.
Earmarks are grants awarded at the behest of individual lawmakers to favored groups and companies with no competitive bidding. Ties between earmark-seeking lobbyists and lawmakers can lead the public to question whether the process is fair, critics argue.
“Unfortunately what this really feeds is this idea that it’s more about access than really having a good product,” said Steve Ellis, vice-president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
Through a spokesman in her Washington, D.C., office, Murray defended her earmarks, saying the projects are supported by the military and would create jobs in Washington state. Spokesman Matt McAlvanah also said Murray supports increased transparency for earmark requests “so that Washington state residents know what she has requested and why.”
Campaign spokeswoman Julie Edwards, when asked whether Murray has shown any favoritism to earmark requests from former aides, said, “Of course not. Her only concerns are creating jobs and supporting our troops.”
“A price for access”
The earmarks in the 2011 defense budget — still just requests until the bill is passed — are just a fraction of the earmarks Murray has sponsored. She ranks ninth in 2010 earmarks, supporting 190 projects worth $220 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
The path from congressional staff to lobbying is well-trod, and other senators with Murray’s tenure also have many former staff in the lobbyist ranks. Murray’s aides often make $100,000 or less a year, while well-connected lobbyists can start at $300,000.
Senate ethics rules require a one-year “cooling off” period, barring new lobbyists from lobbying their former bosses.
The revolving door is most prevalent among staff who worked for members of the appropriations committees, such as Murray, said Tom Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, a nonpartisan watchdog group.
“Those staff members understand the process and market themselves” as having access to power, said Schatz.
A study published earlier this year put a price on that access: $177,000.
That’s the amount, on average, that a Senate staffer-turned-lobbyist lost in annual income when his or her former boss left office, according to the study published by the London School of Economics.
It amounted to a 24 percent drop, and indicated that the connection with an influential senator was so golden for a lobbyist that it couldn’t be replicated.
The fleet of former Murray staff-turned-lobbyists has gravitated toward a cluster of Washington, D.C., lobbying firms that specialize in Pacific Northwest issues.
Desimone, her former chief of staff, left in 2007 to become executive vice president of McBee Strategic Consulting, founded by Steve McBee, himself a former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Bremerton.
Desimone helped Pyng Medical, a Richmond, B.C.-based company, get a $1 million earmark in the 2011 defense budget to develop a bandage-sized device to monitor the breathing and pulse of soldiers in mass-casualty situations.
Other former aides whose clients got Murray-sponsored earmarks in the new defense bill include:
• Hancock, whose lobbying biography says he was “the primary architect of the SAFE Port Act,” a 2006 law aimed at improving port security, when he was Murray’s lead defense staffer. Hancock twice went through the “revolving door” from Murray’s office to the private sector, most recently leaving in 2006 for Denny Miller Associates, founded by the former chief of staff of the late Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson.
• Dale Learn, who lists his six-year stint with Murray on a biography that declares his experience and contacts “provide unmatched access and unparalleled advice regarding federal governmental issues.” Learn, a lawyer, manages the D.C. office of the Tacoma law firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell.
• Chad See, a former Murray aide now lobbying with K&L Gates, who helped two Eastern Washington clients get defense-bill earmarks from Murray worth $4.5 million.
• Christy Gullion, Murray’s former state director, who is now the chief federal lobbyist for the University of Washington, which won a $1.5 million Murray earmark for research on restoration of eyesight for wounded soldiers. Her husband, Jeff Bjornstad, is Murray’s current chief of staff and is on leave managing her re-election campaign.
In interviews, Hancock and Learn said they try to bring to Murray only well-vetted earmark requests that are wanted by the military and that reflect her interest in maritime, technology and veterans issues.
Knowing what she prefers is an advantage, Learn said, but both he and Hancock disputed the idea that she showers her former staff with favor.
“There’s not anything really clubby about Senator Murray,” said Hancock. “She’s been very, very good to me and my career … . I try to take only the cream of the crop kinds of things to her, that she’d be interested in and her staff would be interested in.”
One of Hancock’s clients, Next IT Corp. of Spokane, received a $1.5 million earmark from Murray, even though its executives donate primarily to Republican candidates, records show. Murray’s challenger, Rossi, reported owning more than $100,000 in the company’s stock in a financial filing.
Since 2006, Learn has donated $17,800 to Murray and her PAC; Hancock has donated $8,800.
Boats, medical monitors
The companies in line for Murray’s 2011 defense earmarks often spent $100,000 or more on lobbying fees to the firms of Murray’s former staffers.
Port Orchard boatbuilder SAFE Boats International — motto: “God, Country and Fast Boats!” — has paid $240,000 to Hancock’s firm since 2006. The company’s 2011 earmark follows a $6 million earmark sponsored by Dicks in 2008.
Both earmarks paid for development and construction of a 50-foot combat vessel capable of hitting 45 knots. The Navy wants the boats as it transitions to fighting more agile enemies, and needed another boat for training, said Scott Peterson, CEO of SAFE Boats.
The company’s executives have donated $6,800 to Murray since 2006, in part because “she cares about keeping people employed here,” said Peterson, noting that the 2011 earmark would employ at least 15 people for a year.
For Pyng Medical, the 2011 defense bill was the company’s first venture into earmarks, said the company’s CEO Bob DiSilvio.
The U.S. Army has shown interest in Pyng’s concept: small, simple health monitors that flash a red light if a patient’s breathing or pulse rate drops to hazardous levels, DiSilvio said. But the firm needed a congressional sponsor.
DiSilvio said Desimone guided him through the process and accompanied him to meetings with Murray and Dicks’ staff in Washington, D.C. (Desimone didn’t respond to phone calls and an e-mail seeking comment.)
Pyng executives haven’t made any campaign contributions to Murray. But the $40,000 Pyng spent on Desimone’s firm paid off. Murray’s proposed $1 million earmark is big for a 40-person company with sales of $6 million last year. DiSilvio said the money will be spent on research and development in the Puget Sound area.
“We’re a little Canadian company that doesn’t know much about this,” DiSilvio said. “You need some support in Washington, D.C., that knows how to get your product or idea in front of the right people.”
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.