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Ex-congressmen work as 'consultants' for special interests

Former U.S. House members Jerry Costello (left) and William Lipinski have each done lucrative consulting work for special interests they also supported while in office. | File photos

Two weeks after retiring from Congress in 2013, ex-U.S. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) started collecting a $15,000 monthly check from a federal employee labor union that received critical help from him as a legislator.

Under congressional rules, Costello would have had to wait a year before lobbying his former colleagues. But because Costello was paid for “political consulting,” he could collect checks immediately.

Costello, of Downstate Belleville, isn’t the only ex-member of Congress who jumped almost immediately into potentially lucrative special-interest consulting. Consultants don’t have to follow the same detailed reporting rules as lobbyists, who must publicly disclose clients and income.

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski (D-Ill.), who left Congress in 2005, and former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who left in 2011, also began working as advisers for special interests within months.

While legally permitted, consultant arrangements run counter to the spirit of federal law that sheds light on lobbyists’ activities and restricts when someone leaving Congress can become a congressional lobbyist, critics say.

“By allowing that type of shadow lobbying activity, we are allowing special interests and especially wealthy special interests to influence public policy without disclosure to the public,” said Craig Holman, who lobbies for campaign finance reform and government ethics for the watchdog organization Public Citizen.

Federal guidelines narrowly define lobbying as involving direct contact with a member of Congress or staff. But critics say consultants can have the same influence. A consultant working behind the scenes can “identify who [in Congress] needs to be contacted, write the messages and have someone else make the phone call” to actually lobby for or against legislation, Holman said.

Holman wants legislation requiring disclosure of all congressional consulting activities. He also wants the U.S. Department of Justice to better monitor consultants to guard against improper influence in Congress.

“You only need to catch a few of these abusers and you put the entire industry on notice,” Holman said.

Ex-Reps Reap Big Bucks

When Costello announced his retirement, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association called him “a great supporter and friend.”

Costello provided critical help to the union as chairman or as top Democrat on the House aviation subcommittee.

Former U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh works at a law firm that does congressional lobbying, but the company says he isn’t a lobbyist, instead advising clients. | File photo

In 2006, talks broke down between the Federal Aviation Administration and the air traffic controllers union. The FAA then imposed a new contract, that, among other things, took away union members’ right to a rest period after two hours of directing traffic.

Within two years, 3,000 of the 15,000 federal controllers quit. Costello introduced legislation to require the FAA to submit to mediation and binding arbitration when contract talks reach an impasse. It passed in 2012.

Costello was paid by the union for political consulting starting two weeks after he left Congress in January 2013. Because he was not required (or legally allowed) to register as a lobbyist, his compensation wasn’t on lobbyist disclosure reports. It surfaced a year later when the union had to disclose expenses under Department of Labor rules. Those records showed Costello earned $360,000 in two years of consultant work for the controllers union.

In 2015 – after the revolving-door period ended – Costello registered as a lobbyist, and the union raised his rate to $200,000 a year, disclosure reports show.

Costello also had a consulting job in 2014 with the Association of American Railroads. (He had gone to bat for the rail industry as a member of the House transportation committee.) In 2015, Costello registered as a railroad lobbyist, paid at an annual rate of $200,000, records show.

In a written statement, Costello conceded most of his clients retain him as a consultant, providing “strategic advice,” not a lobbyist. “Since my clients do not want their competitors to know their business activities or plans, I have an agreement not to discuss their activities beyond what is required.”

Costello said he complies with all lobbying rules.

The freight railroad association also hired Lipinski, the former top Democrat on the House railroad subcommittee, as a consultant the year he left Congress in 2005.

As part of that consulting arrangement, Lipinski worked on a public relations campaign involving CREATE, a $1 billion rail project he helped birth while in Congress; it addressed freight congestion in and near Lipinski’s Southwest Side district.

Ed Greenberg, a spokesman for freight rail group, would not disclose how much it paid either Costello or Lipinski as consultants, but said: “No lobbying took place while either man was under a consulting relationship with the AAR.”

Lipinski registered as the trade group’s lobbyist in 2007 — after the revolving door restriction expired — collecting $660,000 over seven years, federal records show.

Lipinski did not respond to multiple phone messages and emailed questions.

‘Faithfully complies’

For retiring senators, revolving door rules prohibit lobbying the Senate for two years.

But five years after leaving Congress, Bayh still hasn’t registered as a lobbyist.

Within a month of leaving office, the McGuireWoods law firm, which is registered to lobby, brought on Bayh, an attorney, as a partner. In the Senate, Bayh was active on health care issues. After he joined McGuireWoods, it picked up clients in the health and medical devices industries, records show.

While still subject to the two-year lobbying ban, Bayh wrote an opinion piece published in the Sept. 27, 2012 Wall Street Journal, urging Congress to repeal a 2.3-percent tax on medical devices passed to help fund Obamacare. He argued the tax “threatens thousands of American jobs and our global competitiveness.” He also wrote that the tax killed expansion plans at Cook Medical of Indiana, a McGuireWoods client, and would have a job-killing impact on Hill-Rom, another Indiana firm that became a client of McGuireWoods the next year.

Records show Cook has paid McGuireWoods $1.49 million in lobbying fees while Hill-Rom paid $375,000.

Neither Cook nor Hill-Rom responded to requests for comment.

Bayh declined to be interviewed but Robert Lewis, a spokesman for McGuireWoods, said in a written statement: “Former Sen. Evan Bayh counsels clients on various issues. However, he does not lobby. He carefully and faithfully complies with all applicable rules and regulations, both in letter and in spirit.”