January 3, 2014
Tangled Role in G.O.P. War Over Tea Party
By ERIC LIPTON
WASHINGTON — In the year since he stepped down from Congress, Steven C. LaTourette, a Republican from Ohio, has emerged as one of the top generals in the establishment Republicans’ war against the Tea Party.
It is a role that has benefited the Main Street Partnership, a corporate-backed advocacy group he runs, and its effort to raise millions of dollars to protect centrist Republicans from Tea Party challengers. It has also helped draw clients to a separate lobbying office Mr. LaTourette and his wife have set up across the street from the Capitol.
But this blitz of activity has led to complaints from Mr. LaTourette’s political opponents that under the guise of defending the Republican Party from extremists, he is profiting from his continued presence in the Washington spotlight. In addition, Mr. LaTourette’s activities have raised questions about whether, in his dual roles, the former congressman violated the federal statute that prohibits lawmakers from lobbying on Capitol Hill for a year after leaving office.
Mr. LaTourette’s situation underscores a new reality as the fierce divisions in the Republican Party unleash tens of millions of dollars in corporate funds, campaign donations and advocacy efforts, creating potential windfalls for well-positioned strategists and former officeholders. It also illustrates how vague the rules are governing lobbying by former members of Congress.
Mr. LaTourette, who stepped down after 18 years in the House, citing his frustration with the bitter partisanship on Capitol Hill, said that any suggestion that his role in championing centrist Republicans is driven by financial self-interest or violated the lobbying ban “is just nonsense.” And he said any encounter he has had with lawmakers has not had the “intent to influence official action,” which is specifically banned.
His work for the Main Street Partnership, he said, is focused solely on helping lawmakers who believe in the government’s ability to solve problems to fight back against extremist groups like the Club for Growth, which he has likened to a “cancer that has attached itself” to the Republican Party for its role in challenging incumbent Republicans with more conservative candidates.
“We want our party back,” Mr. LaTourette said in an interview.
Mr. LaTourette’s activities since his departure from Congress have involved at least four distinct legal entities that he now runs or helps run: the Main Street Partnership, the nonprofit group of which he is the president and chief executive, which raises money from corporations and lobbyists; the Main Street Advocacy fund and Defending Main Street SuperPAC, which together are seeking to amass $8 million to bolster Republican candidates facing Tea Party challengers in the 2014 races; and McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies, the lobbying office he set up, which pushes the agenda of clients as diverse as CSX, the freight railroad giant, and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a group that promotes renewable energy.
It is his role as head of the Main Street Partnership, which he took over after leaving the House, that has elicited questions.
The Main Street Partnership is an unusual enterprise for Washington. It models itself as a tax-exempt social welfare group that generates research on topics such as immigration laws, health care and the federal tax code. But it lists as its members 52 House Republicans and three Senate Republicans — all centrists — and its bills are paid by corporations, lobbyists and other donors, who each pay dues of up to $25,000 a year, raising about $1.4 million, according to the organization’s chief operating officer.
By bankrolling the group and contributing money to an affiliated political action committee that donates money to the lawmakers who are members, corporations gain the right to help draft the Main Street Partnership’s position papers and to participate in events that feature sitting members of Congress. The list of corporate members is kept secret, but the companies that donate to the group’s political action committee, including General Electric and Dow Chemical, as well as Mr. LaTourette’s law firm, offer a hint.
Under House ethics rules and federal criminal law, former lawmakers are prohibited for one year from communicating with members of Congress “with intent to influence official action on behalf of anyone else,” even if they are doing so on behalf of a nonprofit group, like the Main Street Partnership.
But Mr. LaTourette has participated over the past year in private events, sponsored by the Main Street Partnership, that have brought him into direct contact with sitting members of Congress, the group’s own website shows.
That includes a February gathering at the Capitol Hill Club, where Mr. LaTourette sat next to two Republicans, Representatives Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania and Richard Hanna of New York, as they unveiled a report urging Congress to take official action by cutting the corporate tax rate, a reduction that would be funded in part by curbing spending on Medicare and Medicaid and limiting Social Security benefits — a popular idea among corporate America.
The event featuring Mr. LaTourette included newspaper reporters, so it was not a traditional meeting between a lobbyist and lawmakers. Mr. Dent and Mr. Hanna are also members of the Main Street group. Mr. LaTourette said he was not violating the one-year ban, because in his encounters with current members of Congress, “there is never any contact that seeks to influence official action.”
But Kenneth A. Gross, the former head of enforcement at the Federal Election Commission, said that by communicating with lawmakers in his role with the Main Street Partnership during a private, nonpolitical event, and sharing with them a report that advocated action and listed Mr. LaTourette’s name, he may have violated the ban.
“We advise against any interfacing on substance with sitting congressmen and staff,” said Mr. Gross, one of four prominent Washington ethics lawyers who reviewed Mr. LaTourette’s recent interactions with lawmakers. All four said they found them troubling.
Chris Barron, a spokesman for the Main Street Partnership, said that none of the events that Mr. LaTourette participated in over the last year — including a dinner in June sponsored by the Main Street Partnership that featured the House speaker, John A. Boehner, and dozens of other members of Congress — violated the rules. Mr. LaTourette is permitted under the ethics rules to participate in political events that bring him into contact with current members of Congress.
“Former members talk to each other and see lawmakers all the time,” Mr. Barron said. “There is not some giant cone of silence.”
The assertion that Mr. LaTourette is using friction within the Republican Party as a way to drive business to his lobbying firm has been raised by leaders at the Club for Growth and other Tea Party-affiliated entities such as Freedom Works that have themselves been accused of profiting from the Republican Party civil war as they have raised money by supporting candidates who challenge incumbent Republicans.
Mr. LaTourette is not registered as a lobbyist — under the one-year ban, he was not allowed to lobby Congress until this month. But his wife, Jennifer LaTourette, and his former legislative aide, Hilary Fulp, registered as lobbyists for McDonald Hopkins Government Strategies, the new Washington subsidiary of an Ohio-based law firm that Mr. LaTourette established.
Mr. LaTourette’s work on behalf of the nonprofit group has clearly drawn attention to his new lobbying venture. His lobbying firm’s website, for example, is filled with references to television and radio appearances Mr. LaTourette has made as a leader of the nonprofit group. And Mr. Barron, a spokesman for the Main Street Partnership, is also a spokesman for McDonald Hopkins, the lobbying firm.
Mr. LaTourette’s lobbying practice has already developed a specialty in helping liberal-leaning causes gain the support of centrist Republicans, such as the efforts to protect federal funding for the Association of Public Television Stations, the Conservation Campaign (which pushes the government to fund the preservation of land and water resources), and Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, which has advocated continued federal incentives to develop wind and solar energy.
Mr. LaTourette, a former county prosecutor, described his firm’s assignment as finding approximately 20 House Republican votes for his clients, the minimum count needed, along with the Democrats in the House, to get legislation his clients want passed. Mr. LaTourette’s lobbying firm is at times targeting the same lawmakers that the Main Street Partnership’s political-affiliated groups are helping stay in office.
For example, Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions has been waging an intense social media effort on Facebook and Twitter to help build support for Representative Adam Kinzinger, Republican of Illinois, who is facing a challenge this year from a Tea Party-backed Republican. At the same time, Mr. LaTourette’s Main Street Partnership has named Mr. Kinzinger as one of the 10 Republicans it is considering focusing on this year, with as much as $1 million in independent expenditures in his race, after having already donated $9,000 directly to Mr. Kinzinger’s political causes.
“This is not about some high-minded political ideas,” said Tom Borelli, a senior fellow at Freedom Works. “This is a sophisticated get-rich-quick scheme.”
Mr. LaTourette, in one interview, acknowledged that his work with the Main Street Partnership may indirectly benefit his lobbying firm. “It isn’t bad for business,” he said. “But it is not by design.”
He said that he does not solicit corporate members of the partnership as lobbying clients, and that he does not discuss his partnership work when he is soliciting corporations to hire his firm. The firm, he said, benefits mainly from his record of accomplishment in Congress.
“They hired me because I am a results-oriented person, and if they have got a problem, they believe that I can help fix it,” he said.