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Thompson Will Take On Outsider Role After Playing Access Man

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, June 12, 2007

By all accounts, Fred D. Thompson will soon be running for president, portraying himself as a Washington outsider on the campaign trail. But over the past three years he showed up every two weeks or so at a lobbying and law firm in downtown D.C. to plot how best to persuade Congress to help a British company.

His main assignment: to use his connections to then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to extract information about goings-on inside Congress and use it to benefit his multibillion-dollar client.

In exchange for this insider wisdom he was paid a cool $760,000.

Even casual observers of the presidential race know that in recent years Thompson, a Republican former senator from Tennessee, was a lobbyist between his acting gigs. What is less widely known is what he did in D.C.

According to people he lobbied with, Thompson was an access man. He contacted his old colleagues to learn the latest about bills his client cared about. Thompson was frequently responsible for finding out what Frist was planning for asbestos legislation, his spokesman said -- an easy task, given his eight years in the Senate representing Tennessee alongside Frist (both were first elected in 1994).

Thompson's client, London-based Equitas Ltd., held billions of dollars to pay off claims from people sickened by asbestos, a once-common building material. It wanted Congress to limit how much it had to pay into a trust fund to cover those liabilities.

In an earlier era, the term of art for what Thompson did would have been "foreign agent." But a law change in 1995 allowed lobbyists for foreign companies to register simply as run-of-the-mill lobbyists, which permitted them to sidestep detailed disclosure requirements about their activities and to avoid the politically charged "agent" designation.

Thompson began working for Equitas in 2004 as part of a gold-plated team that included some of Washington's best-known lobbying firms: Quinn Gillespie & Associates (led by Edward W. Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee), Ickes & Enright Group (led by Harold Ickes, an adviser to Democratic presidential candidate and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York) and DLA Piper, one of D.C.'s biggest lobbying law firms.

The team was headed by Martin R. Baach of Baach Robinson & Lewis. Thompson would join their regular strategy sessions at Baach's offices in person or by telephone. His fellow lobbyists sometimes teased him about his acting work when he was on the phone, asking if he was wearing makeup.

Thompson was considered an effective member of the team and went into overdrive with the others in 2005 to kill a provision that would have saddled Equitas with a huge portion of a proposed asbestos settlement. Thompson usually took the lead in dealing with Frist, also talked to then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and was relied on to analyze the legislation's prospects. (It died last year.)

"Senator Thompson was a highly valued member of the team," Baach said. "We appreciated the energy he brought to the effort."

Thompson knew the ropes, having done lobbying work since the 1970s. Before he was elected to the Senate, his lobbying clients included Westinghouse Electric, U.S. Cablesystems, the Teamsters Central States Pension Fund and the American Business Coalition. His opponent for the Senate in 1994, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), labeled Thompson a "Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving, Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon-spreading millionaire Washington special-interest lobbyist" but was still clobbered by the Republican.

Thompson spokesman Mark Corrallo dismissed such criticism as "not an issue at all." He said that Thompson is proud to have been a lobbyist and believed in Equitas's cause. "It's an honorable endeavor," Corrallo added. "He was retained to do a job, and he did it to the best of his abilities."

Finger-Pointing Over Exposé

Get ready for a small eruption on K Street, courtesy of Harper's magazine. The magazine's Ken Silverstein masqueraded as a person with an interest in the not-so-savory government of Turkmenistan and got some top lobbying firms to detail what they could do to improve its reputation.

Apco Worldwide suggested a menu that would come with a whopping $600,000 tab in the first year. It said it could arrange meetings between Turkmen officials and members of Congress, organize fact-finding trips to the country and sponsor an event with publications such as Roll Call and the Economist. Op-eds, prepared by think-tank experts, might also be placed in prominent publications by an Apco staffer who "does nothing but that," according to the article.

Apco's B. Jay Cooper said the presentation was standard and not aimed at "bending the truth" -- something he accused Harper's of doing. "Sounds like he is projecting on us what he was doing," Cooper said, referring to Silverstein. Roger D. Hodge, Harper's editor, conceded: "There was a deception involved, but there was a public interest at stake."

The Airlines' Flyby Faux Pas

The top brass at the Senate Finance Committee are incensed over a legislative end-around engineered by American and Continental airlines. The airlines used their contacts with the Democratic leadership in Congress to sneak into the Iraq war spending bill a provision that will reduce the payments they have to make to their workers' pension plans, a move that will save them millions.

The Finance Committee's senior members are not pleased. They have asked the airlines' chief executives to explain themselves and are warning that theirs may well have been a Pyrrhic victory.

"These two airlines flew around the Finance Committee to get this pension provision in the spending bill, but we will review, in the light of day, exactly what deal they got," Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) said ominously.

"The committees of jurisdiction spent many months working on a pension bill that took each airline's status into account," added Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the panel's ranking Republican. "These two airlines and their allies in Congress have undermined that work."

In other words, flyboys, you've made some powerful foes.

Transitions of the Week

William T. Archey, the chief executive of AeA, formerly the American Electronics Association, said he plans to retire when he turns 65 in 2008 after more than 13 years with the technology trade group.

Lee Verstandig resigned as senior vice president of government affairs at the National Association of Chain Drug Stores. Bernie Toon, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer, will head the D.C. office of Bechtel.

Google's fast-growing lobbying shop has added two more staffers, both former aides to Michigan Democrats. John Burchett is the new state policy counsel and Johanna Shelton is a legislative strategist.

Stuart Roy, a former aide to ex-congressman Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), left DCI Group for Prism Public Affairs. Ex-congressman Henry Bonilla (R-Tex.) joined Normandy Group.

Please send e-mail to kstreet@washpost.com.

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