NATIONAL REVIEW ONLINE
April 12, 2014 12:00 AM
Washington’s Rotten Core
The Podestas’ breakup offers a window onto a political culture of pettiness and greed.
By Matthew Continetti
‘I see lobbying,” Tony Podesta has said, “as getting information in the hands of people who are making decisions so they can make more informed decisions.” Last week the information Tony Podesta was giving was the divorce complaint he had filed in D.C. Court against his wife, Heather. The hands receiving that information belonged to a gossip columnist for the Washington Post, who made the “informed decision” to report on it. Later in the day Heather, who is also a lobbyist, gave the Post the text of her counter-suit. It published a follow-up.
The documents, which you can read below, did not become available to the rest of us until yesterday. They tell stories not only of a May–December romance gone sour but of how obscene wealth can be amassed through rent-seeking and influence-peddling in Washington, D.C., and of the hoary means by which the princelings of the capital and their consorts maintain and grow that wealth. They tell stories not only of an ugly divorce but of the power of lobbying, of how one family maneuvered to the center of the nation’s dominant political party, of the transactional relationships, gargantuan self-regard, and empty posturing that insulate, asbestos-like, the D.C. bubble.
That the broken couple now uses the tools of their trade — the phone call to a friend, the selective leaking of documents, the hiring of attorneys, the launch of a public-relations campaign — against one another is more than ironic. It is fitting. Tony and Heather Podesta reached the pinnacle of wealth and influence in Barack Obama’s Washington. Now they, like he, are in eclipse.
The stories begin in the fall of 2001. She was in her early thirties, working at a trade association, and on the rebound. Her second marriage had just ended. A friend, Dorothy Robyn, a Democratic policy wonk, suggested she meet Tony Podesta. Tony was decades older than she and had been married once before, but he was young at heart. He took her to the opera for their first date. On the way, the story goes, they stopped by one of his homes to pick up a car. She noticed his art collection. “I don’t know why it is,” Tony said, “but I have artworks where the women have no heads.” The next day she sent him a note. It was signed, “Woman with a head.”
The woman with a head was Heather Miller, and soon she and Tony were in love. They moved in together. When they married, in April of 2003, Tony was 59, and Heather was 33. Nancy Pelosi witnessed their vows, as did Patrick Leahy, and Ed Markey, and Bill Richardson, and countless other Democratic bigwigs. According to the Post, which has chronicled the ups and downs of the Podestas’ relationships and careers, the noted D.C. chefs and restaurateurs Roberto Donna and Kaz Okuchi “personally cooked for the guests.” This was no ordinary wedding.
And Tony Podesta was no ordinary man. A longtime Democratic aide, a counselor to Teddy Kennedy, Tony had been one of the capital’s most powerful lobbyists for some time. As his lawyers would later put it, “‘Podesta’ was a widely recognized and well-respected name in the lobbying industry at the time of the marriage.” The lobbying firm he had established in 1987 was powerfully connected. His younger brother, John, was President Clinton’s chief of staff. Tony Podesta owned art and wine and real estate in Italy, in Australia, in northern Virginia, and in D.C. He was a major Democratic donor, a force to be reckoned with, and a cut-up, a character who wore loud neckties and red Prada shoes. “The Pope wears Prada,” he is known to say, “and so do I.”
Heather changed her name — something she had not done in her previous marriages — to Heather Miller Podesta. She emulated her spouse, developing, in the words of the Post, “a penchant for flamboyantly patterned dresses.” She joined the company, began lobbying. She picked up Tony’s art habit, and together they amassed a collection of more than 1,300 pieces. She set to work, renovating their six-bedroom, six-and-a-half bathroom home in Northwest D.C. off Massachusetts Avenue, overlooking the Rock Creek Parkway.
She wanted, her lawyers would say later, “to create a uniquely beautiful architectural space for the dual purposes of having a wonderful home in which to live and promote their shared interests, both professional and personal.” The renovation took three years and cost millions of dollars. The “marital residence,” where they promoted their shared interests in holding parties and fundraisers for Democratic politicians, and housed immense wine and art collections, is estimated to be worth some $5.6 million. Concerned about income inequality? The Podestas are the 1 Percent.
They would visit their apartment in Venice, Italy, up to a dozen times a year, hosting Janet Napolitano, entertaining passersby such as Representatives Shelley Berkley and Eliot Engel, “even,” the Post once breathlessly intoned, “Teddy Kennedy.” They’d open their homes to tours so people could enjoy the art, could witness the spectacle of their wealth. One story they liked to tell took place in 2004, when the guests at their northern-Virginia home, near Lake Barcroft, walked into a bedroom festooned with the works of Katy Grannan, “a photographer known for documentary-style pictures of naked teenagers in their parents’ suburban homes.” The guests were shocked. But oh, how Tony and Heather laughed.
In 2007 Podesta Matoon became the Podesta Group. Heather formed Heather Podesta + Partners, establishing two prongs of the Podesta-family empire. The third prong was the Center for American Progress, founded in 2003 by John Podesta, who would oversee President Obama’s transition team in 2009 and join the Obama administration as a senior adviser in 2014. The Podestas had become the most important non-elected family in the Democratic party.
In 2009, with the inauguration of Obama and the dawn of unified Democratic control of Washington, business boomed. Revenues at Tony’s firm close to doubled, and revenues at Heather’s firm increased by 50 percent. The money has continued to roll in. The Podesta Group had some $13 million in lobbying income in 2013, sporting clients such as Lockheed Martin, Wells Fargo, U.S. Airways, Walmart, and the National Biodiesel Board. Heather Podesta + Partners made some $4 million, lobbying on behalf of health companies, the American Beverage Association, Brookfield Power, DeVry University, and others. A portion of that money was recycled, contributed to Democratic campaigns and opening up avenues of influence: Tony gave some $45,500 in 2013, all to Democrats; Heather, some $95,798 to Democrats, Democratic committees, and liberal groups.
As government expands, extending its reach to every aspect of business, every sector of the economy, private citizens and corporations require sherpas to lead them through the mountains of regulations and tax provisions, to discover exemptions and special favors and other forms of relief or favoritism to improve the bottom line. And who better to act as sherpas than the relatives of the Democrats who impose the regulations and tax provisions in the first place, who better than the lively proprietors of a family business operating in the luxurious and morally uncomplicated world of the caste of limousine liberals who dominate politics, culture, news, and finance?
Corporations give to Democratic politicians, avoiding the scrutiny of liberal attack dogs in the media and nonprofit sectors, and enjoying the ego boost that comes with being on the “right side of history.” Then those corporations hire the Podestas to get them out of the Rube Goldberg traps the Democrats have enacted into law. John’s innovation was to establish a corporate-funded think tank where the burdensome policies would be concocted, and whose staff would go on to man the regulatory agencies that put their wool-headed ideas into practice. And to whom do the corporations turn when they find themselves on the receiving end of all this uplift, all this do-goodery, all this progress, hope, and change? Why, to the man in the red Prada loafers, and to his flamboyantly patterned wife.
It was in 2009 that the Washington Post dubbed Heather Podesta the “It Girl in a new generation of young, highly connected, built-for-the-Obama-era lobbyists.” The appellation was bestowed in a lengthy and fawning “Style” profile, which acted as a sort of advertisement for her lobbying firm. Heather Podesta lamented in the piece that the onrush of business, the peals from health-insurance and green-energy companies looking for special treatment under the new Democratic dispensation, had interfered with her and her husband’s international travel. Whereas they used to visit Venice up to a dozen times annually, Podesta said, “Now we only maybe get there six times a year.” The poor dears.
The next year, Washington gadfly Tammy Haddad reported on Heather’s fortieth birthday for Politico. “Attending a Tony Podesta party is a pretty good way to start a new year,” Haddad wrote, “but a party to celebrate his wife Heather’s 40th birthday at their new showcase home is a great way to start a new decade.” It was downhill from there. Like Elvis, with whom she shares a birthday, Heather Podesta, Haddad said, had “become a rock star in the Washington power scene as a top lobbyist.” There were red-velvet cupcakes. An Elvis impersonator gyrated for guests. Democratic congressman John Larson and “Terry Lierman, chief of staff to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, took a tour of the provocative and sometimes whimsical artwork with Jane Oates, John O’Leary, Conrad Cafritz, and Hilary Rosen.” Also there was Jonathan Silver, “the Energy Department’s new money man,” who gave the American taxpayer Solyndra, and who coordinated strategy with John Podesta’s Center for American Progress.
Those winsome days have passed, however. The couple separated a month before Obama’s reelection. Their marriage’s denouement, as related in their divorce filings, is like a retelling of the War of the Roses. He says that in March 2013, months after they had separated, she asked for money to “purchase a multi-million dollar residence for herself,” and he agreed to pay half of the down payment. What he did not know at the time was that she was seeing another man. She says he’s prevented her from accessing the database that keeps track of the art collection. He says she changed the locks on the Venetian flat. She says he’s trying to get rid of the art before the court divides it between them. He says she forced the “cancelation of a scheduled exhibition at the Australian embassy.” She wants the Kalorama house, half the art, and “an equitable division of the parties’ other marital property, including the value of each party’s lobbying firm, retirement accounts, securities, business assets, tangible personal property, including jewelry, wine collection, and all other marital property.” He just wants to be rid of her.
If Heather Podesta has a flaw in the eyes of Washington it is that she is entirely too honest about the mechanics of lobbying. When she launched her independent company in 2007 it was with the slogan “We know people.” Dianne Feinstein once canceled a fundraiser organized by the Podestas, the Post reported years ago, after she got wind that the invitation read as follows: “The prix fixe includes the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course followed by your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary, or Rules Committees.”
Heather Podesta’s court filing is just as direct. “As a married couple who both lobbied,” it reads, “they strategically cultivated their public image, and worked to build the ‘Heather and Tony Podesta’ brand for the success of their shared enterprise.” Now that shared enterprise is no more, the Heather and Tony Podesta brand is damaged, and all the years of strategic cultivation are in danger of coming undone. This “married couple who both lobbied” is sundered, revealing a political culture of pettiness and greed, and reminding us that there are few things as revolting, intellectually, morally, and ethically, as the “Washington power scene.”
Divorce documents here.