Washington lobbyist Peter Knight, invariably described as "like a brother" to Vice President Gore, is leading the Gore campaign's $55 million fund-raising strategy. At the same time, Knight is providing corporate clients like telecom powerhouse Bell Atlantic and defense giant Lockheed Martin with intelligence on inside White House thinking.
Roy Neel, a former Gore chief of staff so close to the vice president that he arranged the memorial service for Gore's father, makes a reported $500,000 a year as president of the U.S. Telephone Association. Today, he lobbies administration officials on behalf of phone companies even as he continues to advise the vice president and his staff on telecommunications policy and conduct "special projects" for the Gore campaign.
And Tom Downey, Gore's "First Friend" since their days together in the House of Representatives, who often drops by the vice presidential house just around the corner from his own, works as a lobbyist for clients like Microsoft Corp. and Fuji Photo Film Co. that have been embroiled in legal battles with the Clinton-Gore administration.
The three are among the vice president's closest confidants as he launches his 2000 presidential campaign, a Washington in-crowd for whom business and politics are inextricably linked. With the exception of Housing Secretary Andrew M. Cuomo and a few other senior staff advisers, Gore's tight-knit gang is composed of high-paid lobbyists and consultants whose clients pay for their expertise about the complex policy machinery of the Clinton-Gore administration.
Ronald Reagan's kitchen cabinet was larded with West Coast businessmen; Bill Clinton is famously disparate in the friends whose counsel he seeks. But the members of Gore's inner circle -- much like the vice president himself, who grew up in a hotel on Massachusetts Avenue and now lives just up the street -- are creatures of Washington. In addition to Knight, Downey and Neel -- "the boys," as Gore aides refer to the group -- it includes Jack Quinn, a lawyer-lobbyist at Arnold & Porter and former White House counsel, and two political consultants who also represent corporate clients, media adviser Robert Squier and pollster Mark Penn.
At least in part, they make their living by marketing their proximity to a vice president who has played a particularly sweeping policy-making role. Often, they are hired by clients whose interests directly conflict with administration policy. For example, Quinn is representing large manufacturing companies that back tort reform, anathema to the trial lawyers who are a key administration constituency and Democratic party funding source. He is also the "vetter of last resort," as he describes it, for the Gore campaign -- a sensitive post given Gore's fund-raising woes during the 1996 election.
At times, Gore's outside advisers represent clashing corporate interests. While Penn and Downey help Microsoft as it fights an antitrust suit by the Clinton Justice Department, Marla Romash, the new deputy campaign chair, plans to continue work at her public relations firm for ProComp, an alliance of high-tech companies backing the antitrust case.
"Mark and I have laughed about that," Romash said. "We don't talk about it."
Such crosscurrents of obligation have been a subject of concern inside the campaign, whose lawyers are reviewing the business dealings of even outside advisers. Several are expected to leave their private-sector jobs eventually, in part to head off potential conflicts. Knight, the most controversial after congressional investigations of his lobbying, said in an interview that he plans to leave his lobbying firm, a step urged on him by some senior Democrats for months.
The campaign refused to detail the business interests of its key outside advisers. But, Romash said, "the campaign lawyers are talking to people in key advisory roles," adding, "We want to identify any problems before they become problems and prevent them."
Gore appears to be sensitive to the idea that his closest advisers owe some of their business success to their connection with him. Last month, he passed them over to bring in yet another Washington power player -- former House Democratic whip Tony Coelho -- to serve as campaign chairman.
"Gore was looking for someone whose outside influence does not derive from their connection to Al Gore," said one campaign adviser of Coelho's hiring.
But Gore also went out of his way to make clear to Coelho that his longtime confidants still have his ear. "One thing they all know: they can all pick up the phone and call Al Gore, and he'll take their call," said a Democratic lobbyist.
There are, of course, many others in Gore's orbit -- including lobbyists like Greg Simon, Gore's former chief domestic policy aide, whose firm works for a number of high-tech companies; and Anthony Podesta, brother of White House chief of staff John Podesta. His firm represents businesses seeking looser environmental regulations and was paid $1.2 million over the past two years by a television industry group battling the V-chip, the technology promoted by Gore that blocks television violence.
"It's like a personal support team," said Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman, who has also been advising Gore on campaign strategy. "They're the people who will be there for you come hell or high water."
A former Cornell University football player, Peter Knight was Gore's first hire as a freshman Tennessee congressman in 1977. Knight remained Gore's chief of staff for 13 years in the House and Senate, and has run all of his electoral campaigns until this one.
Knight has also seen his business fortunes rise in tandem with his longtime boss's prospects. In 1991, when he first became a lobbyist, Knight was barely pulling his weight at the firm he joined, then called Wunder, Diefenderfer, according to sources familiar with its practice. But the next year, after Clinton selected Gore as his running mate, Knight quickly became the firm's chief rainmaker. By 1995, he was billing $2.9 million a year for lobbying.
"It was said inside the company that Knight was thick with the vice president, and if we needed something, we'd go through him," said one Lockheed Martin Corp. executive. Lockheed hired him in 1995 and paid his firm $560,000 over the next four years, mostly for lobbying on environmental issues.
In 1996, Knight took a leave to become the campaign manager for the Clinton-Gore reelection, drawing fire later from congressional Republicans for preparing call sheets for Gore for fund-raising solicitations he made from the White House. And Knight's own lobbying deals drew repeated scrutiny from Capitol Hill.
One probe centered on Knight lobbying that helped secure million of dollars worth of Energy Department contracts for a Massachusetts toxic-waste cleanup firm, Molten Metal Technology Inc. The company and its officers gave at least $90,000 to Democratic campaigns in 1996, as well as $20,000 worth of company stock to a member of Knight's family.
Another Hill investigation centered on Knight using his influence to persuade federal officials to move Federal Communications Commission headquarters to an office complex in Southwest Washington owned by a Knight client. Knight received a $1 million fee for the Portals deal, and a House committee referred questions about the payment to Attorney General Janet Reno. She declined to launch a formal probe.
Knight denies doing anything improper and said he resents what he calls "partisan, political attacks on me that are really an attempt to get at the vice president."
Today, Knight is spending almost all his time on fund-raising for Gore and plans to stop lobbying at some point this year. But he has still offered up-to-date insider advice to clients, including the Tennessee Valley Authority, headed by a fellow Gore alumnus.
Lockheed, too, is still a Knight client. He's been counseling the firm in its aggressive efforts to persuade the administration not to end its $1 billion deal assisting Russia in launching commercial rockets. The White House has signaled it might terminate the arrangement to discourage Moscow from selling ballistic missile technology to Iran. As on other space policy quandaries, Gore is expected to be a key player.
After two years of stories about his lobbying, Knight did not get the post that numerous sources said he yearned for: the campaign chairmanship that went to Coelho. "Peter was untenable for a lot of people," said one Gore veteran. "Unfortunately, [Gore] was very, very slow to the decision that Peter could not be the campaign chairman."
Even so, the pair is so close, and Knight is so embedded in Gore's political life, that Gore never appeared to consider distancing himself from him. "There's no air between those two" is how one top Democratic fund-raiser put it.
If anything, Knight said, the controversy brought them even closer. "We were in it together," he said, "and it was the first time either of us had had our integrity questioned."
Roy Neel is also a charter member of what he calls "the very small alumni association" around Gore. Hired by the young Tennessee congressman only months after Knight in 1977, Neel over the years became Gore's top policy adviser on telecommunications -- the subject area with which the vice president is most identified after the environment.
Neel moved to the White House with Gore as his chief of staff in 1993. But he left later that year to take the helm of USTA. Now, he plays a leading role in telecommunications policy on behalf of the Baby Bells.
But the former sportswriter and Navy public affairs officer in Vietnam said he feels a "pride of authorship" as Gore's top telecommunications adviser and said he still counsels the vice president's staff on the subject.
He does so, Neel said in an interview, only about broad policy questions rather than narrow regulatory issues of more direct commercial interest to USTA. His advice to the vice president is high altitude, Neel said, "in the nature of matters at 50,000 feet."
The regional Bell operating companies that Neel represents have had ceaseless complaints with what they consider over-regulation by the federal government, arguing they are hamstrung by decades-old rules that restrict what businesses they can enter at the same time that new competitors such as the cable companies are invading their territory.
"Roy's a good hire for USTA," said one lawyer who has dealt with him. "He softens up the worst beatings it would get from the administration."
The Bells, in the effort to get their message across in the White House, have hired a number of others from the Gore retinue, most notably Knight, whom Neel describes as his "best friend."
Neel, meanwhile, continues to be what he called "the institutional memory" of the Gore operation, regularly fielding calls from Gore or his advisers on past policy issues or the 1988 Gore presidential campaign.
A key contact for old Gore hands from Tennessee, Neel today is also raising money for the campaign and said he may leave USTA to take a more formal position later. "Often, I'll just sit in on meetings and provide my two cents," he said.
Thomas J. Downey arrived in the House in 1975, two years before Al Gore, as a 25-year-old liberal from Long Island who went on to bond with Gore over basketball games in the House gym even as he moved up the ranks to become a protege of powerful Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski.
But in November 1992, the same day Gore was elected vice president, Downey was defeated, attacked for writing overdrafts at the House bank as well as for taking a lobbyist-funded junket. Downey quickly chose to join their ranks, staying in Washington and setting up a bipartisan lobbying firm with former representative Rod Chandler, a Republican from Washington state.
Last year, Downey Chandler earned $1.8 million in fees from 47 clients -- 58th highest in lobbying revenue, just behind Wunder, Knight, according to Legal Times.
The former congressman has a varied client list, including some companies locked in combat with the Clinton administration.
Microsoft paid Downey $280,000 in the last two years, while the firm also took in $360,000 over the last two years from Fuji Photo Film, which was battling Clinton administration charges before the World Trade Organization that the company was illegally barring Eastman Kodak Co. from the Japanese market. Last year, Fuji won the case before the WTO.
Even as he lobbies the administration, Downey plays a key role in Gore's political life. He "doesn't hesitate to call you up and tell you what he thinks" about the campaign, said one Gore strategist.
Often used to convey bad news to a vice president prone to "implosions" when things don't go well, Downey is one of the "emissaries" favored by the Gore staff to their boss, according to several Gore advisers. "The others are friends/staff," said one Gore adviser. "But Tom is more of a peer."
Downey declined interview requests, and left a voice mail message declaring his unavailability. "I'm in Siberia," he said, "on a dogsled."
On the wall of Jack Quinn's downtown office at his law firm of Arnold & Porter hangs a photograph of Quinn surrounded by Clinton and Gore, their arms draped across his shoulders. "To my most trusted ally," the accompanying letter from the vice president reads. "Al."
Quinn, Gore's chief of staff before becoming White House counsel, bristles at the term "lobbyist" to describe the work he does at Arnold & Porter.
Unlike Knight and Neel, who were indelibly associated with Gore when they began their lobbying careers, Quinn noted that he practiced law for 17 years at the firm before working for the vice president. He also pointed out that he can't lobby Gore or anyone else at the White House until 2002 because of the law that bars federal officials from lobbying their former agency for five years.
But even if Quinn himself doesn't trek to the White House for clients, he painstakingly instructs his associates at the firm when they go there in his stead. Quinn wrote the Clinton White House's rule book on regulatory procedures -- an executive order spelling out how the administration will get involved in agency decisions -- and offers himself to corporations as an insider navigating an often "opaque" landscape of executive branch decision-making.
"Quinn's pitch to clients is, `A lot of people know Congress; I can give you insight into the administration,' " a Quinn friend said. Some of Quinn's clients need that kind of inside knowledge because they are pushing agendas that are in direct opposition to stands taken by Clinton and Gore.
One such Quinn client is a group of software and computer companies that paid his firm $420,000 last year for lobbying to lift a ban, strongly supported by the National Security Agency, on the export of encryption technologies that protect computer data. Gore and others in the White House have expressed ambivalence on the topic, but the administration officially backs the NSA.
Quinn also represents two trade organizations that were set up by large manufacturing companies to try to impose restrictions on the filing of class-action lawsuits and to press other tort reforms. The two groups shelled out $620,000 to Quinn's firm for lobbying last year alone. The Clinton administration has resisted most of the legal reforms sought by Quinn's clients.
But Quinn said he would never lobby the vice president. "Couldn't, wouldn't," he added. "We do our best at this firm to help clients accomplish their objectives, but in a way that enables us all to hold our head high."
Researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
Gore's Inner Circle
Tom Downey grew close to Al Gore in the late 1970s, when both were members of the House. Now lobbyist Downey has a wide client list, including some firms upset with stands of the Clinton administration.
Roy Neel was a key Gore aide in the House and Senate, from 1977 to 1993, and his top adviser on telecommunications issues. Then Neel worked as the vice president's chief of staff before taking over the U.S. Telephone Association.
Peter Knight was Gore's first hire as a young congressman and remained as his chief of staff and top political strategist for 13 years. Lately controversy has swirled around his lobbying, but two years of probes have yielded no criminal charges.
Jack Quinn became the vice president's chief of staff in 1993, and later was White House counsel. Formerly a lawyer with Arnold & Porter, Quinn rejoined the firm in 1997. He now acts as the Gore campaign's "vetter of last resort," checking on donors who trip ethics alarms.