The Power Player
Sunday, March 4, 2007
* This article is part of a special online report.
For Gerald Sylvester Joseph Cassidy, creator and proprietor of the most lucrative lobbying firm in Washington, May 17, 2005, was a day to exult. That bright, clear spring Tuesday marked the 30th birthday of Cassidy & Associates, and an impressive crowd had come to pay tribute to a godfather of the influence business.
Hundreds of guests gathered on the rooftop terrace of a handsome new office building at the foot of Capitol Hill, 13 stories above Constitution Avenue. A vivid orange sun descended gently behind the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial at the western end of the Mall, casting angular beams of light across the assembled throng. The guests' view from the roof was filled by the United States Capitol, which from this startling vantage point could be seen, from end to end, in a single field of vision. The Capitol looked contained and compact, almost a plaything within easy reach.
As the setting sun illuminated the scene, the party illuminated a new Washington -- a capital transformed by big money in the 30 years since Cassidy became a lobbyist. This new Washington operated on new ethical norms, embraced new standards of risk and reward and offered tempting new career choices for former officials, members of Congress, their spouses and their aides.
Cassidy helped invent the new Washington, which had made him seriously rich. His personal fortune exceeded $125 million. He and his original partner, whom he forced out of the firm 20 years earlier, devised a new kind of business, subsequently mimicked by many others. Their innovation was the first modern "earmarked appropriations" -- federal funds directed by Congress to both public and private institutions when no federal agency had proposed spending the money. Over the subsequent three decades, the government dispensed billions of dollars in "earmarks," and lobbying for such appropriations became a booming Washington industry.
Cassidy may be the richest Washington lobbyist, but he is far from the best-known. Since a scandal erupted that bears his name, that title belongs to Jack Abramoff, the confessed felon, bribe-payer and tax evader who is now an inmate in the federal prison camp in Cumberland, Md. He is still cooperating in a widening federal probe of corruption on Capitol Hill.
Abramoff's brazen behavior fit a stereotypical caricature of the Washington lobbyist as a willful rogue eager to corrupt members of Congress. The Abramoff story is a crude pulp thriller punctuated by free dinners, lavish golfing outings, big campaign contributions, arm-twisting and old-fashioned bribery.
Cassidy's is a subtler epic that probably reveals more about the culture of Washington, D.C. It, too, involves favors, gifts and contributions, but they are supplemented by the disciplined application of intellect, hard work, salesmanship and connections. In Cassidy's story, all these can influence the decisions of government to the benefit of private parties -- Cassidy's clients.
A Gatsbyesque Affair
Charlie Palmer Steak, the gleaming Washington outpost of a famous Las Vegas restaurant, had catered Cassidy's party. Restaurant staff circulated with platters of miniature hamburgers and tartlets of goat cheese and mushrooms. The restaurant occupies much of the ground floor of the building at 101 Constitution Ave., where the rooftop party was held. One of the restaurant's owners is the same Gerald Cassidy, a man of many investments.
He had turned 65 a month before the party, and he looked spiffing. His full beard of uniformly short whiskers was trimmed to a triangle of white. His fullback's frame was perfectly draped in a dark gray, double-breasted and pin-striped suit made by Alan Flusser in New York, Cassidy's home town. Flusser's custom suits start at $3,800. A white shirt with French cuffs and a silk tie in a pattern of black and white checks completed the ensemble. The checked tie set against the suit's prominent pin stripes evoked a Las Vegas defense attorney.
The outfit advertised the distance Cassidy had come from his difficult childhood in a troubled Irish American family. None of its other members, denizens of Brooklyn and Queens, wore custom-made suits; none had even graduated from college before Cassidy did in 1963. Cassidy's memories of his youth are short on nostalgia, long on deprivation. "I remember evictions, repossessions, things you never forget." Jack Cassidy, his stepfather, was a pugnacious Navy veteran and former boxer who sometimes threw a punch at his son.
At his big party Cassidy's shyness was displaced by pride; he was virtually preening. He presided with a certain dignified formality, greeting guests with a warm smile but never slipping out of character. Like Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's self-invented tycoon, Cassidy seemed to enjoy the idea of the party at least as much as the party itself.