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Well-connected Trump alumni benefit from coronavirus lobbying rush

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 4/30/2020 Michelle Lee, Tom Hamburger, Anu Narayanswamy
a man wearing a suit and tie: Brian Ballard in D.C. in 2018. The lobbyist’s firm picked up four new clients in March that sought lobbying help related to the coronavirus pandemic. © Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News Brian Ballard in D.C. in 2018. The lobbyist’s firm picked up four new clients in March that sought lobbying help related to the coronavirus pandemic.

As a wave of coronavirus restrictions shuttered more than two dozen of his hotels, Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett publicly pleaded for help.

“Every American should expect just enough from government that our businesses can survive. Is that too much to ask?” the longtime GOP donor wrote in a March blog post.

Behind the scenes, Bennett’s companies paid $50,000 to hire two well-connected allies of President Trump for help seeking financial relief: Jeff Miller, former vice chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, and Roy Bailey, a top fundraiser for the president’s reelection campaign, according to lobbying disclosures.

As lobbyists blitz Washington for a piece of the massive federal response to the global pandemic, a group of former Trump administration officials and campaign alumni are in the center of the action, helping private interests tap into coveted financial and regulatory relief programs. 

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Businesses hit hard by the virus and health-care manufacturers seeking approval for their products have rushed to hire Trump alumni, who are leveraging their connections in a variety of ways — helping get their clients designated as “essential” services and securing meetings at the White House and federal agencies on their behalf, federal filings show.

In all, at least 25 former officials who once worked for the Trump administration, campaign or transition team are now registered as lobbyists for clients with novel coronavirus needs, according to The Washington Post’s analysis of federal lobbying records and employment data compiled by ProPublica.

The barrage of activity shows how, despite Trump’s repeated claim that he would “drain the swamp,” his former aides and onetime administration officials have embraced Washington’s lobbying world — and are now providing firepower for companies eager for coronavirus relief.

Slideshow by photo services

The group of hotel companies that Bennett chairs did not respond to requests for comment on the hiring of Miller and Bailey.

A few weeks after they came aboard, the companies together received the biggest windfall so far of any other publicly traded company: $126 million in loans from the Small Business Administration. The companies said they needed the relief money to bring employees back to work and to help stabilize the hospitality industry.

It is unclear whether the lobbyists had any role in helping secure the money from the Paycheck Protection Program. According to SBA rules, the agency processes loans submitted by banks on a first-come, first-served basis.

An SBA spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Neither lobbyist responded to requests for comment.

Miller, a veteran GOP operative who ran former Texas governor Rick Perry’s presidential bid in 2016, works at his firm with other Trump alumni, including the former director of legislative affairs for Vice President Pence and the former senior director of Cabinet affairs at the White House, according to the company’s website.

Their clients now include Nuclein, maker of a handheld coronavirus testing device that is seeking regulatory clearance from the Food and Drug Administration. Nuclein paid the firm $10,000 to lobby Pence’s office and the Department of Health and Human Services, lobbying records show.

Other lobbyists with ties to Trump who are representing clients on coronavirus issues include Brian Ballard, a longtime lobbyist for the Trump Organization and major campaign fundraiser; his business partner Pam Bondi, a former Florida attorney general who served as counsel to Trump during the impeachment trial; and Barry Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Former high-level administration officials are also lobbying on coronavirus issues, including a onetime counselor to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, a past deputy assistant secretary at HHS and a previous State Department adviser.

Donald Trump, Pam Bondi are posing for a picture: President Trump with then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi at the White House in February 2018. © Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post President Trump with then-Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi at the White House in February 2018.

The rush for a piece of the coronavirus lobbying business cuts against the president’s oft-repeated claim that he has upended Washington’s K Street culture.

Within his first two weeks in office, Trump signed new ethics rules intended to make it harder for administration appointees to profit off their time in government as lobbyists. His executive order imposed a lifetime ban on administration officials lobbying for foreign governments and prohibited officials from lobbying agencies where they worked, for a period of five years after leaving those positions.

“Most of the people standing behind me will not be able to go to work” after they leave government, Trump said in January 2017 as he signed the order in the Oval Office, surrounded by top aides.

While Trump pledged in his campaign to institute “a five-year ban” on lobbying, his rules prohibit former officials only from lobbying their former agency — not from becoming a lobbyist.

Some former officials subject to restrictions that bar them from lobbying the administration for a period of time after their exit have turned their focus instead to Capitol Hill, disclosures show.

Data shows that Washington’s lobbying industry has not contracted during Trump’s tenure. While the number of registered lobbyists fell during President Barack Obama’s eight years from 13,718 to 11,187, the federal lobbying corps has held steady under Trump, according to public data compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Last year, there were 11,892 registered lobbyists who together were paid $3.5 billion — the largest sum spent on federal lobbying in at least a decade.

It is also unclear how well Trump’s lobbying ban is being enforced, since the executive order he signed stripped out an Obama-era provision requiring an annual public disclosure of how well the administration is complying with its ethics rules.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement that “it is the policy of the Trump Administration to ensure that all current and former employees comply with obligations under applicable ethics rules,” including the lobbying rules.


If the White House learns of interactions between current officials and former employees that could violate those rules, “we have cautioned” those involved not to continue such communications, said a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal processes.

The number of Trump alumni lobbying on coronavirus issues is a small fraction of the hundreds of K Street denizens who have been tapped to advocate for private clients hit by the pandemic. But government watchdogs say their connections give them outsize sway — particularly those who previously worked for Trump and are perceived to carry great cachet with the administration.

“Those people retain a lot of influence because they built out the DNA of the executive branch,” said Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank. 

And Trump-allies-turned-lobbyists said the president’s unpredictable moves make their services particularly valuable.

“The government is picking winners and losers in industries, so being able to have an understanding of . . . the pulse of this administration and thought patterns, and their processes as to how they got to these decisions years ago, provides help,” said one lobbyist and former Trump official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly about private conversations with clients.

Barry Bennett, who co-founded his lobbying firm, Avenue Strategies, in December 2016, offering it as a “sherpa” to help navigate the administration, said business has ticked up since the virus hit.

“There are many challenges in the country, but the need hasn’t gone away for people to talk to the federal government,” he said in an interview.

Among his new clients: San Diego-based Arcturus Therapeutics, a preclinical drug-trial company that is developing a coronavirus vaccine. Arcturus paid Bennett’s firm $30,000 in the first quarter of 2020, disclosures show.

The vaccine company hired him, Bennett said, to help develop a “strategy to communicate with the federal government” and others around the world as they begin human vaccine trials overseas.

Bennett has sought information from the HHS and its Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority on behalf of the company, which is planning to initiate human clinical trials this summer for its coronavirus vaccine, known as Lunar-Cov19, filings show.

Barry Bennett wearing a striped shirt and looking at the camera: “The need hasn’t gone way for people to talk to the federal government,” said former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett, shown in 2015 © Cliff Owen/AP “The need hasn’t gone way for people to talk to the federal government,” said former Trump campaign adviser Barry Bennett, shown in 2015

Ballard Partners, one of Washington’s fastest-growing lobbying firms, picked up four new clients in March that sought lobbying help related to the coronavirus, according to the firm.

On March 18, NanoPure, a South Carolina manufacturer of disinfectants, hired Ballard to help the company get one of its disinfectant products approved by the Environmental Protection Agency as effective against coronavirus.

“As they move forward at the EPA, we will be assisting them,” said Justin Sayfie, a Ballard partner.

Scott Alderson, an official from NanoPure and a related company, said the manufacturer sought the help of Ballard’s firm because “we are doing everything we can to fast-track its approval and to hopefully save lives.’’

Ballard Partners also signed a Long Island-based commercial laundry equipment company called Laundrylux, which sought to get laundromats and laundry services added to a federal list of “essential” industries.

The list is maintained by the Department of Homeland Security and is used to advise state and local authorities as they make decisions about which businesses can remain open during a quarantine.

“They hired us to assist in being identified by the federal government as an essential-business industry so that people could wash their clothes” during the health emergency, Sayfie said.

Within a week, the DHS added laundromats and related businesses to their list of essential industries.

Neal Milch, owner of Laundrylux, said he was connected to Ballard through a friend in the laundry services industry, adding that Ballard’s ties to Trump played no role in the company’s decision.

While Ballard’s firm was “clear that they don’t promise any particular outcome,” it played a crucial role in helping elevate the industry’s needs to the administration, Milch said.

“We just needed our tiny voice to be heard,” he said.

Later in March, Fidelity National Financial, a Florida-based title and document recording service, signed up Ballard and Bondi to protect its business by getting document services related to home sales declared an essential service.

In addition to the new clients, Ballard is continuing to monitor coronavirus issues for long-standing institutional clients, including major public hospitals in Florida and Florida International University.

Among the other former Trump administration and campaign aides lobbying on coronavirus issues are Shannon Flaherty McGahn, counselor to Mnuchin until January 2018.

McGahn, who is married to former White House counsel Donald McGahn, joined the National Association of Realtors later that year to lead its nonpartisan congressional advocacy team. She is now on the team lobbying Congress on coronavirus relief issues and the needs of small businesses and contractors in the real estate industry during the pandemic, the association said.

The association reported spending $13.6 million in the first three months of 2020 lobbying on a range of issues, including coronavirus relief and legislation.

NAR spokesman Patrick Newton said Shannon McGahn’s team “is working at the moment to make sure the self-employed, independent contractors and small-business owners are protected and represented on the Hill in any legislative responses to this pandemic.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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