$2 Million Payment to Former Lobbyist Raises Eyebrows
You've probably never heard of Jeffrey S. Shockey. So, for simplicity's sake, think of him as the Two Million Dollar Man.
The 40-year-old congressional staffer last year collected nearly $2 million in severance payments from his former employer, a lobbying firm that specializes in winning benefits from the committee he now serves. Many longtime Washingtonians are shaking their heads in disbelief over the payout's enormous size, its ad hoc method of calculation and the fact that Shockey received it while working as a senior congressional aide.
No wonder Americans hate the nation's capital. Federal employees are prohibited from supplementing their incomes with money from private sources, especially from lobbyists who have business before the government. Shockey says his payment was justified and within the rules. But experienced lobbyists around town question both its economics and its propriety.
The situation is an example of a common occurrence -- the spinning of the "revolving door" between the public and private sectors. Shockey is deputy chief of staff of the powerful House Appropriations Committee. Before that he was a partner for five years in a lobbying firm that made its living extracting goodies from the same committee. And before that he worked for Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), who was then a member of the committee and is now its chairman.
Along the way, Shockey made millions. As a lobbyist in 2004 he earned $2 million, which is double what the city's top lobbyists were said to earn just a few years ago. Shockey, in fact, was on track to make $3 million in 2005, the year he returned to government as the No. 2 staffer for the Appropriations Committee.
Lobby shops often give parting gifts to colleagues who go into public service as a way to maintain strong relations. But the amount tends to be nominal and strictly tied to past performance to avoid even the appearance of paying a federal official in exchange for favorable treatment -- an exchange that would be illegal.
Why, then, would Shockey's former firm pay him so much? The reason, several seasoned lobbyists speculated, must have been the firm's desire to keep its communications with Shockey and the appropriations panel absolutely seamless. "There would be no need to pay out that amount of money unless you needed to maintain a superlative relationship with that person after he leaves," one veteran lobbyist said.
Spokesmen for Shockey's old firm say the company already had deep connections with Lewis and didn't need any more. Still, who can blame skeptics for thinking that $2 million might buy more than merely goodwill?
Congressional appropriators like Lewis were once hesitant to explicitly fund pet projects for fear of being accused of playing favorites and of micromanaging the government. But that was a long time ago. The Republican Revolution of 1994 ushered in a new congressional majority that professed to be distrustful of government but also worked overtime to maintain its control by directing federal aid into popular programs that would help reelect GOP members.
Lawmakers were encouraged to earmark billions of dollars for thousands of home-state projects every year as a way to court their constituents. To take advantage of those giveaways, lobbyists increasingly specialized in appropriations work. Shockey and his firm were leaders in the field.
Lobbyists were hired in droves and dozens of them made fortunes, including Shockey. Inundated by requests for earmarks, some congressmen began to rely on their lobbyist friends to help them select which projects to back and to monitor them as they moved through the legislative process. In turn, the lobbyists supplied the congressmen with campaign contributions and other amenities.
Critics decry such mutual back-scratching as incestuous, undemocratic and potentially corrupting. Lobbyists (and their grateful clients) say it's just the way things work in the complicated world of Washington. In any case, it surely was no coincidence that many of Shockey's four dozen clients -- including the city of Redlands and the county of San Bernardino -- were in the southern California district of Shockey's once and current boss.