Patton Boggs is in negotiations to purchase the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group

(Brad Puckett - AP)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 11, 2010

Washington's biggest lobbying firm is on the verge of getting even bigger. Patton Boggs LLP, which rang up nearly $40 million in lobbying last year, is in negotiations to purchase the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group, according to sources familiar with the talks.

Breaux-Lott -- named for its founders, former U.S. senators John Breaux (D-La.) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) -- already has a close relationship with the Patton Boggs behemoth, with the two firms operating in a "strategic relationship" for the past two years. Thomas Hale Boggs Jr., the larger firm's chairman, has particularly close ties with Breaux, who left Patton Boggs to partner with Lott.

While Patton Boggs has long held the title as K Street's largest and most influential lobbying firm, Breaux-Lott is a smaller, family-dominated operation that reported just less than $11 million in lobbying in 2009. The firm was formed in January 2008, shortly after Lott left the Senate, and includes both of the founders' sons and a former Lott aide on its payroll.

Neither firm responded to requests for comment Wednesday on the state of merger negotiations. Sources familiar with the talks said the two sides are nearing a deal. Stay tuned . . .

The White House social secretary job has often gone to influential political supporters of the president. Lea Berman, a top Republican fundraiser along with her lobbyist husband, held the position during President George W. Bush's administration, while longtime Democratic politico and former Bloomingdale's executive Ann Stock filled the job during the early Clinton years.

But President Obama's new social secretary, Julianna Smoot, sets a new bar in bringing powerful connections to the job. Smoot, 42, served as national finance director for Obama's $750 million presidential campaign, overseeing the single largest accumulation of political contributions in U.S. history.

Smoot, in other words, was in charge of wooing and managing many of the same high-dollar donors and bundlers who would most like to be invited to state dinners and other White House events.

To some good-government activists, the move seems contrary, at least in spirit, to Obama's repeated vows to curb the influence of special interests in Washington. The appointment also comes amid grumbling from some of Obama's moneyed supporters, who complain they have not enjoyed the kind of White House access they had hoped for and who have bristled at the administration's increasingly harsh rhetoric against Wall Street.

"If you're having problems with high donor maintenance and you're going into an election cycle, who better to be in charge of White House social functions than your chief fundraiser?" said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.

Even so, Sloan and other public-interest advocates acknowledge that it's hardly the first time a White House has turned to a staunch political supporter or operative to serve in the social secretary's role.

Smoot's predecessor, Desiree Rogers, was a consummate Obama insider who helped raise money and attract supporters within Chicago's business community. Rogers announced her departure this month after a string of controversies, including the state dinner fiasco that occurred when a Virginia couple crashed a White House event for India. The White House quickly named Smoot as her successor.

The North Carolina native has worked for a who's who of Democrats, including serving as finance director for the 1998 Senate campaign of John Edwards (D-N.C.) and helping to raise an astonishing $21 million for the failed 2004 Senate reelection campaign of Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). Early in her career, Smoot also worked at the American Association of Trial Lawyers (now the American Association for Justice), which ranks as one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington.

A White House spokeswoman said Smoot "will continue on the path laid out over the last 14 months of building events here that reflect the Obamas' vision for an open White House." Most events will be focused on "young people," she said. Smoot has not spoken publicly since being named to the post.

Mary Boyle of Common Cause, the nonpartisan advocacy group, said her organization has adopted a wait-and-see approach, noting that "experience in social and fundraising circles" comes with the job.

"Donors are going to get in to see Obama regardless of who is the social secretary," Boyle said. "But if there is some indication that the White House doors start closing and the only people who get in are donors, then that will be a concern."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company