OHA push for Akaka bill topped $2M
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See An analysis of data on the amount spent by local organizations on lobbying efforts in Congress shows OHA leading the list by four times as much as the next highest total. This information was complied from reporting forms that only require precise disclosure of expenditures of more than either $10,000 or more than $20,000. There are two total spending columns, one the minimum possible, the other the maximum.
By Jim Dooley
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Jim Dooley
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs spent $2 million on its congressional lobbying efforts for the Akaka bill — a third of all money spent by Hawai'i companies, private citizens and government agencies on Washington lobbying since 2003, according to an analysis of public records.
The OHA expenditure was the highest on the list of total dollars spent on lobbying efforts in Congress, outpacing the second highest expenditure from the University of Hawai'i, which paid $561,000 in Washington lobbying fees in 2003-04 under former president Evan Dobelle, U.S. Senate records show.
OHA's Akaka bill campaign was led by high-powered lobbyists with strong ties to both the Democratic and Republican power structures in Washington, including connections at the highest levels of the White House and the U.S. Senate.
Despite spending four times as much on lobbying as any other Hawai'i entity and the political clout of its lobbying team, the Akaka bill — which would establish a federally recognized Native Hawaiian government entity — failed to garner enough support for passage from 2003 to 2006.
The $2 million total in OHA fees does not include $900,000 spent by the agency since 2003 to operate and staff a "Washington bureau," said OHA administrator Clyde Namu'o, nor does it include costs incurred by regular visits to Washington by OHA and other state officials, including Gov. Linda Lingle, to seek passage of the Akaka bill.
And it does not include $120,000 spent by Maui-based private developer Everett Dowling's company on pro-Akaka bill Washington lobbying. Dowling, who has been involved in several development deals with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on Maui, said he spent the money because, "I think federal recognition is important."
Namu'o said he believes the lobbying effort "was worth it" because the Akaka bill was extensively debated on the floor of the Senate this summer for what's called a "cloture" vote, which would have brought the stalled measure to the full Senate for a formal vote.
Sixty votes were needed for cloture and it failed, 56-41, shelving the bill for the remainder of the congressional term.
"Getting to the cloture vote was a major milestone," Namu'o said. "It's the furthest we've ever gotten."
He said the cloture debate "told us exactly what issues there are for the bill by the senators" and "hearing some of those issues and discussions will help Senator Akaka next year" if the bill or a substitute measure is introduced, Namu'o said. The bill may have a better chance of passage now that Democrats are in the majority of both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
OHA has refused to disclose detailed records of its Washington lobbying campaign, claiming that because the work was performed by law firms, the records are protected by the attorney-client privilege.
A protest of OHA's refusal to reveal the billing records — itemized accounts of who was lobbied and what expenses were incurred — has been pending before the state Office of Information Practices for more than a year.
OIP executive director Les Kondo said that a formal opinion on the legal issues involved is still being prepared but should be completed soon.
OHA spent $1.8 million on Akaka bill lobbying by a major Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, Patton Boggs, and $300,000 with another D.C. firm, Zell & Cox, which has no other clients except OHA, according to federal lobbying records.
The chairman of Patton Boggs is Thomas H. "Tommy" Boggs Jr., regarded as one of the most influential lobbyists in Washington, with deep family and professional connections to the Democratic Party. When the lobbying contract was signed in May 2003, Boggs was charging $735 per hour for his services, although he told OHA at the time that billing rates were "adjusted" annually.
The other lead lobbyist for OHA at Patton Boggs is Benjamin Ginsberg, an influential attorney for the Republican Party and personal friend of Karl Rove, the White House deputy chief of staff and President Bush's closest political adviser. Ginsberg's billing rate in May 2003 was $500 per hour.
Another partner in the firm, Robert Luskin, is Rove's personal attorney and represented Rove during the 2003-05 federal grand jury investigation of the leaking of CIA operative Valerie Plame's name to news media.
Newsweek magazine reported a year ago that Rove was involved in White House meetings involving OHA and the Akaka bill. The White House declined comment when the magazine asked if there was any policy requiring Rove to disqualify himself from issues connected to the Patton Boggs firm. A spokeswoman said, "All ethical obligations are being met," Newsweek reported.
Boggs and Ginsberg have led a team of some half-dozen lobbyists working on the OHA account, according to disclosure records filed over the past three years in Congress.
The most recent report, filed with the secretary of the Senate Aug. 8, said Patton Boggs received $340,000 during the first six months of this year for OHA lobbying. The agencies that were lobbied during that period, the report said, were the White House, the U.S. House and Senate and the Departments of Interior and Justice.
It was during that period that a last-ditch effort to bring the Akaka bill forward for a Senate vote failed.
During this year's push for a Senate vote on the Akaka bill, Patton Boggs subcontracted part of its lobbying effort to a firm with close connections to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, lobbying records show.
That firm, Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc., was paid $50,000 by Patton Boggs, records show.
Alex Vogel, co-founder of the firm, is former chief counsel to Frist and partner Bruce Mehlman is the brother of Republican Party National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman.
Namu'o said that the firm was brought on board for the OHA lobbying campaign in part because of its ties to Frist. The Akaka bill proponents needed Frist's cooperation to bring the measure to the floor of the Senate for the cloture vote.
Namu'o said the $50,000 paid to Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti came from from fees already paid to Patton Boggs and was not an additional expense to OHA.
Namu'o said the Patton Boggs lobbying contract was "suspended" this summer but may be reactivated once decisions are made on whether to seek reintroduction of the Akaka bill or a similar measure.
Zell & Cox, the other lobbying firm hired by OHA to assist on the Akaka bill, was hired last year under a two-year contract for $150,000 a year.
A partner in the firm is attorney Patricia Zell, a former longtime staffer for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and chief of staff for the committee when it was chaired by Hawai'i Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.
Zell retired from federal employment at the end of 2004 and went into business with her husband, Michael Cox, also a lawyer and a longtime Washington lobbyist.
The partnership registered with the Senate as an OHA lobbyist in June 2005 and since then has registered no other clients, according to Senate records.
OHA has had a close working relationship with Zell for years. In August 2004, OHA threw a $37,000 retirement party here that honored Zell for "her steadfast support and work in advancing the well-being of Native Hawaiians" during 23 years of service at the Indian Affairs Committee.
The retirement bash was held at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and included presentation of some $1,000 in gifts, lei and commemorative photographs to Zell, records show. Tickets that OHA sold for the event brought in $9,000.
Namu'o said Zell is still working actively for OHA in Washington on lobbying tasks unrelated to the Akaka bill. A one-year extension to her firm's contract was signed in May at the same cost of $150,000, although the Zell & Cox billing rate was reduced from $400 to $350 per hour.
Reach Jim Dooley at firstname.lastname@example.org.