New lobbyists in Ohio have strong Republican ties

Published: Monday, July 04, 2011, 9:58 PM

By Mark Naymik, The Plain Dealer

Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said special interests will have a hard time getting coveted cash in Ohio, but many of the new lobbyists registering have strong connections to Kasich's Republican Party. Kasich was speaking to a crowd of supporters at the Ohio Republican Party celebration after his election win in November 2010 in Columbus.

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- When Republicans swept Democrats from office in Columbus last November, they triggered a political ritual among the Capitol Square crowd.

Special interests -- from business associations to gaming companies -- rushed to hire lobbyists with ties to the new government. Lobbying firms beefed up their rosters to feature GOP players. And political operatives in the winning party set out their shingles.

More than 375 new lobbyists have registered with the state since Republican John Kasich defeated Democrat Gov. Ted Strickland and the GOP regained control of the House and improved its grip on the Senate, according to a comparison of 2010 and 2011 lobbying registration rolls.

These lobbyists include Republicans new to the lobbying game, well-seasoned GOP campaign consultants and lobbyists who sat out the recent Democratic-controlled years. The bulk of the new members are state employees -- who work for officeholders or are recent appointees to boards and commissions and are directly involved in legislative matters.

All of the new members join an army of Statehouse lobbyists that total more than 1,500, according the Office of the Legislative Inspector General, which tracks lobbying registrations.

The roster changes underscore the perception that who you know matters in Columbus. And the jockeying doesn't appear slowed by Kasich's anti-lobbyist rhetoric, which includes his now infamous epithet of entrenched special interests as people "with their snouts in the trough." Or by his warning that if they don't get on his metaphorical policy bus, he'll run them over.

Emerging lobbyists have strong GOP connections

The most prominent member of the new crop of policy pushers is Donald Thibaut, one of the governor's closest friends, who in March formed a lobbying company, the Credo Company, with another long-time GOP operative and newly registered lobbyist, Robert Kovey.

More about lobbyists

Thibaut has been a political adviser to Kasich for decades and was Kasich's chief of staff during his nearly 20 years in Congress, a point Thibaut makes on his company website.

His dozen clients include companies with a keen interest in the new Republican leadership's stated goal of reducing business regulations and privatizing aspects of state government.

Among Thibaut's clients are utility companies; GTECH, a gaming company that hopes to run the day-to-day operations of the Ohio Lottery; and Corrections Corp. of America, which operates prisons. (The budget Kasich signed last week allows six state prisons to be sold to private operators.)

Thibaut did not respond to written questions to discuss his business or ties to the governor.

Kelly McGivern, president of the Ohio Lobbying Association, says some special interests "change lobbyists due to the perception that they need someone that they believe has more ties to the new decision makers."

But, she says, lobbying is about what you know.

"While the political affiliation of a lobbyist may come into play and cause a change in some cases, most often the experienced lobbyist works hard to keep partisan politics out of the mix and can work with policy makers regardless of their party affiliation," said McGivern, who also is president and CEO of the Ohio Association of Health Plans, an health industry trade group.

Despite Kasich's earlier admonitions, his spokesman Rob Nichols said every lobbyist is welcome to pitch the administration.

"Regardless of how things may have worked at the Statehouse in the past, Gov. Kasich has made it clear to members of his cabinet and staff that all policy advocates are to be treated equally, and that no one should be given special access to him or denied access," he said in a written statement. "Given the severity of Ohio's economic and fiscal problems, the governor has encouraged every Ohioan with ideas for creating jobs and filling our budget hole to share them. We can't afford to cut off any ideas if we hope to get Ohio back on track."

Other lobbyists who show up on this year's list include GOP adviser and public relations consultant Chan Cochran.

Once a spokesman for Republican Gov. James A. Rhodes, Cochran represents three clients: Columbia Gas, American Electric Power, and the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Foodbanks.

Cochran, who worked closely with Kasich during his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, said he's largely a strategic communications consultant and registered as a lobbyist out of an "excess of caution" because he is perceived as a "friend of the governor."

David Myhal, a Columbus GOP fund-raising consultant who's worked with the Partnership for Ohio's Future, the political arm of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, lobbies for six companies, including CompManagement, a managed-care organization for workers' compensation insurance.

Myhal declined to discuss his emergence as a lobbyist.

Other Republicans on this year's list include Dana Rinehart, who was Columbus mayor from 1984 to 1991, who lobbies for the Ohio Independent Automobile Dealers Association.

A new administration, a second chance

Republicans once tainted by political scandal are finding renewed trust -- and work, according to the lobbying registration rolls.

The law firm of Roetzel and Andress hired Matt Borges in December to be its government relations director.

Not only did the firm tout Borges' deep ties to the GOP, which include chief of staff to former Republican state Treasurer Joe Deters, the firm offered praise from Ohio GOP Chairman Kevin DeWine.

"No one did more to help all our state, local and federal candidates this year," DeWine said in the firm's December press release.

Borges works with 14 clients, including Hamilton County and the Ohio Council for Home Care and Hospice.

In 2004, Borges was embroiled in pay-to-play scandal. Borges pleaded guilty in Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court to a misdemeanor count of unauthorized use of a public office for giving preferential treatment to certain brokers who contributed to Deters' re-election campaign. He paid a $1,000 fine. He later cleared his misdemeanor record when he was granted an expungement.

Borges says he's "worked extremely hard for the better part of a decade to regain trust" and will not do anything to jeopardize that as a lobbyist.

Borges said his work as a campaign consultant has put him close to the issues now before the legislature and that makes him valuable to clients.

"The campaign side is where a lot of these proposals and issues get vetted," he said. "As for understanding the issues on Capitol Square, I don't consider myself second to anyone."

Douglas Talbott also shows up this year. A former top aide to Govs. Bob Taft and George Voinovich, he represents 10 companies, including Information Control Corp, an information technology company and Informatica, a data management company.

Talbott was convicted of a misdemeanor for concealing $1,960 in campaign contributions from coin dealer and GOP fund-raiser Tom Noe to three Republican Ohio Supreme Court justices. He was also convicted of two misdemeanor ethics charges for failing to disclose that Noe lent him $39,000 for a vacation home.

Noe is serving 18 years in prison for raiding a $50 million investment portfolio he had managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

Old clients now new clients

The Wholesale Beer and Wine Association, which employees a battalion of lobbyists to oppose such things as higher alcohol taxes, has beefed up its roster, adding longtime lobbyists Robert Klaffky and Doug Preisse, partners in the firm Van Meter, Ashbrook and Associates.

Klaffky and Preisse -- like Thibaut -- are a part of Kasich's inner circle and helped shape Kasich's campaign policies.

Intralot, a Greek gaming company that runs on-line games for the Ohio Lottery Commission and has an interest in efforts to privatize the agency's day-to-day operations, hired Klaffky and Preisse. The GEO Group of Florida, which operates prisons, added the duo as well.

Klaffky says he previously represented the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association and that some of his "best clients are old clients."

"Obviously, there is a perception that someone is close to a particular decision maker or office holder, but it's really more complicated and sophisticated than that," he says. "It's about your knowledge of the issues and knowledge of how a particular officeholder thinks, and what their priorities are." He stressed that the lobbyists do not precipitate the changes in the lobbying roster -- clients do.

"They are the ones who come to you," he said. "It's hard to solicit this type of business. At least, I don't."

Klaffky, who largely works with the legislative branch of government, said big issues get most of the attention, but the bulk of lobbying work involves small matters.

"They are business issues, or there's a comma in a statute that could make all the difference in the world, and most people don't pay attention to these," he said.

Klaffky says he considers many officeholders his friends, including Kasich, but draws strong lines between social and business talk.

"I just make sure when I'm talking to someone I know, I say, 'hey, I'm lobbying now,' and they know whom I'm lobbying for and what the issue is," he said. "I let my conscience guide me."

While the Wholesale Beer and Wine Association picked up Klaffky, it dropped David Leland, a Democrat and former state party chairman who was Strickland's chief fund-raiser in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign. The association grabbed Leland in 2006 soon after Democrats took control of most of the executive statewide offices.

Such lineup changes drive how Columbus politics works, a point underscored by Leland's firm, Carpenter Lipps & Leland. In November it hired Jon Allison, former legislative director and last chief of staff to Taft. Allison has been the firm's voice on this year's budget, providing analysis on the budget to people on the firm's email list.

It's also typical during the change of administrations for Capitol Square staffers -- aides to legislators and their caucuses and committees -- to leave government to become lobbyists.

Anthony Brigano did just that, joining Hicks Partners in February as its government relations managers. Brigano worked in several legislative positions and was most recently a policy adviser to Ohio House Speaker William G. Batchelder.

He's registered to lobby on behalf of 14 of the firm's clients.

The firm's owner, Brian Hicks, who was Taft's first chief of staff, says his firm did "reasonably well under Strickland" because his firm does more than open doors.

"We pride ourselves on having substantive policy knowledge," he said.

Hicks, however, says that the November election results allowed the firm to grow and bring on Brigano.

"Tony was not the right hand man of the governor, but he's a very solid guy who has a lot of experience on the legislative and the executive side, and he has deep policy and process knowledge," Hicks said.

McGivern added that the public has a "predetermined idea" of lobbying that shortchanges the profession.

"The successful lobbyists stand the test of time and administrations through experience, work ethic and respect of the process -- not based upon their party affiliation," she said.