From Public Life to Private Business

By David S. Hilzenrath
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 28, 2006

After more than 30 years in politics, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen was saddled with credit card debt.

The baker's son from Bangor, Maine, was never wealthy, and his government salary went only so far. When the motorcades and military escorts ended in January 2001, his final financial disclosure form listed tens of thousands of dollars of charge-account debts at interest rates as high as about 25 percent.

Within weeks of leaving office, he was living in a $3.5 million McLean mansion with a swimming pool, a cabana and a carriage house.

Cohen's career had entered a classic final phase: the monetizing of the public man.

Instead of returning to Maine, which he had represented in the House and Senate for more than two decades, Cohen followed legions of government officials into the business of consulting and lobbying. Trading on an insider's knowledge, contacts and personal cachet, the former defense secretary created his own Washington firm, the Cohen Group , which works for some of the biggest companies in the defense industry.

During his legislative career, Cohen stood for "purity of the political process," according to the Almanac of American Politics. He made his name as a young Republican voting to impeach President Richard Nixon over Watergate, and, he said in an interview, passed up lucrative options to stay in public life. He sponsored lobbying reforms.

Now, his firm promotes itself by touting its connections.

"We Specialize in Access, Insight and Intelligence into the Defense Industry, DoD and Government programs," the Web site for a Cohen investment advisory service said until recently. The Web site said the Cohen Group's "Competitive Advantage" included "Senior level relationships throughout industry and government."

One day Cohen is appearing at a Lockheed Martin Corp. event in India, smoothing the way for a fighter-jet sale; another, he's attending a charity ball at the request of a company that wants him at its table because, an executive at the company says, "You are judged by the friends you keep."

When Cohen's firm isn't making a case for the Air Force to buy a particular type of plane, or helping a biotech company make connections in China, it might be lobbying the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of a software company, or helping local governments save military jobs from the federal ax.

In an e-mailed statement this month, Cohen said he carried out his government duties "with great respect for the public trust I was given and without any consideration of future gain."

"Since I left public office, I have worked very hard to build a firm of highly professional and ethical individuals who work together to help businesses compete and succeed in the global economy," Cohen said.

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