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Pence turns VP’s office into gateway for lobbyists to influence the Trump administration

Vice President Pence arrives to speak at a National Day of Prayer event in the Rose Garden of the White House on May 3, 2018. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Vice President Pence has transformed his office into a new entry point for lobbyists seeking to influence the Trump administration across federal agencies, according to federal records and interviews.

About twice as many companies and other interests hired lobbyists to contact the vice president’s office in Pence’s first year than in any single year during the tenures of Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Richard B. Cheney, filings show.

Among those lobbying Pence and his staff were representatives of major drug companies and energy firms, as well as businesses seeking favorable tax treatment. Many others have contacted his office on more obscure regulatory matters such as a Medicare billing dispute, technology regulations at the Education Department and regulations at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the records show.

The approach has allowed Pence, a former congressman and Indiana governor, to emerge as a key ally for corporations inside the Trump White House even as the president vows to “drain the swamp.”

At the core of the operation is a feeling of extended family that courses through Pence’s inner circle, which includes friends, donors and former staffers who are among the lobbyists in regular contact with the vice president’s office.

In several cases, the relationships are mutually beneficial, with lobbyists who have charged clients millions of dollars to access his office donating money to Pence-backed political causes.

Few examples better illustrate the dynamic than Pence’s bond with Bob Grand, a veteran Republican lobbyist whose firm billed corporate clients $3.3 million over the first 15 months of the Trump administration for lobbying that involved the vice president’s office.

Grand helped Pence decide to join the Trump ticket in 2016 and then became a regular visitor at the White House, a repeated guest on Pence’s government plane, and a major financial backer — including as co-host of a Capitol Hill event Thursday night for the congressional campaign of Pence’s brother, Greg Pence.

At times, it is hard to decipher when Grand is operating as a friend, a donor or a lobbyist. When Grand traveled on Air Force Two last year, on a flight decorated with balloons and streamers to celebrate Pence’s birthday, the vice president’s political action committee, Great America, paid for his ticket. A subsequent flight with Pence back from Indiana will be paid for by President Trump’s reelection campaign, according to Pence’s office.

“You call in and say, ‘Who do you talk to? Who is the contact?’ ” Grand said of his professional relationship with Pence’s office. “That is a lot of what it is.”

Federal records illustrate the dramatic increase in the lobbying community’s focus on the vice president. A total of 236 lobbying clients reported contacting Pence’s office in 2017, almost twice the 120 that approached Biden’s office in the first year of the Obama administration, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

By comparison, the number of lobbying clients reporting contacts with Trump’s office was essentially unchanged — rising by less than 1 percent — from President Barack Obama’s first year in office.

Pence’s aides view the assistance they provide to lobbyists as part of a broader effort to cut red tape in the federal bureaucracy.

“The vice president’s policy staff regularly takes meetings with representatives from the private sector — including registered lobbyists, whose activity is publicly disclosed and regulated — to discuss policy,” said Alyssa Farah, Pence’s press secretary. “Hearing the real-world impacts, positive or negative, to individuals or businesses is a key input to the deliberative process behind President Trump’s agenda and making the federal government more accountable to the American people.”

In some cases, Pence has served as a kind of second White House chief of staff on regulatory issues, given his extensive knowledge of how the government works and the president’s relative lack of interest in policy details, according to current and former Trump administration officials.

Pence was also responsible for staffing many of the federal agencies that lobbyists seek to influence. One other lobbyist who interacts with Pence described the vice president’s office as a key entryway to reach officials such as Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, who worked for Pence when he was governor of Indiana. A spokesman for Verma said the agency gets requests for meetings “in many different ways.”

“His staff is very accessible,” said the lobbyist, who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid jeopardizing future access to the Trump administration. “If you can’t get high up in the West Wing, they are your best bet.”

The actions taken by Pence and his staff as a result of lobbying are not disclosed in federal filings, and more than a dozen companies that have hired people to contact his office declined to comment on the role of the vice president or what their lobbying spending accomplished. 

Lobbyists with multiple clients that reported approaching Pence’s office include several people who, like Grand, have close personal ties to the vice president.

William Smith spent more than 13 years as Pence’s chief of staff before founding the lobbying firm Sextons Creek. He has lobbied Pence’s office for clients including the National Biodiesel Board, the American Camp Association and the Affordable Housing Tax Credit Coalition. Sextons Creek did not register as a federal lobbyist before 2017, when it listed Pence’s office as a point of contact for 11 of its 14 clients, their fees totaling $784,750.

Victor Smith was appointed by Pence to serve as Indiana’s commerce secretary and is now a principal at Bose Public Affairs Group, whose clients include Ford Motor Co., a Transportation Security Administration contractor and Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager. In 2017, Bose’s client list grew by 12 from 2016 to reach 31, and seven of its clients had contacts with Pence’s office.

And Jeffrey Miller of Miller Strategies, who was an adviser to Energy Secretary Rick Perry, is helping Pence’s effort to raise money for Republican midterm candidates and has lobbied Pence’s office on behalf of Energy Transfer Partners, the developer of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as two electric utilities, the Southern Company and FirstEnergy Service.

William Smith, Victor Smith and Miller did not respond to requests for comment.

Employees of those three firms and Grand’s firm, Barnes & Thornburg, billed clients for $6 million in the first 15 months of the Trump administration for efforts that listed Pence’s office as the focus. Three of those firms also contributed $50,950 to Great America and to Pence’s brother’s congressional campaign. Greg Pence’s campaign and Great America recently signed a joint fundraising agreement. Employees of Grand’s firm have so far given $21,600 to the Greg Pence campaign, more than any other employer, according to public records.

“I ask all my friends, whether they are clients or not, to give money to Greg Pence,” said Grand, who splits his time between Washington and Indianapolis. “He is a wonderful guy.”

The vice president has taken an unconventional approach to fundraising in the early years of the administration, forming a leadership committee to fund his own political efforts and staff, in addition to his work for his brother’s campaign and fundraising for the midterm elections. On Wednesday, Pence was the keynote speaker at a $3.2 million fundraiser at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. In attendance were nearly three dozen Republican lawmakers from districts vulnerable to Democratic takeover this fall.

In some cases, donations to Mike Pence’s political causes can provide a platform for companies seeking to influence federal policy. The CEO of the ethanol processor POET, Jeff Broin, a donor to Great America and Greg Pence, was invited to a roundtable discussion convened by Pence at the Trump International Hotel this year, where he made a pitch to government officials for expanding the use ethanol in gasoline.

POET is one of at least three firms involved in the ethanol industry that have been lobbying the vice president in an effort to preserve or expand the amount of biodiesel used in the nation’s gasoline supply. “We have been friends for years,” Broin said of Pence in an interview at the time with an industry publication. Efforts to reach Broin and his firm’s lobbyist, David Bockorny, who is also a donor to Pence’s causes, were not successful.

In some cases, the connections between Pence’s staff and the lobbyists contacting them can be deeply interwoven. Phil Cox is a Pence donor and a partner of Great America’s director Marty Obst, and he disclosed billing $132,000 to lobby Pence’s office and other parts of the administration on behalf of pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly about new drug-price controls in Japan. Pence has played a central role in trade negotiations with Japan, traveling there twice as vice president. 

Pence’s chief of staff, Nick Ayers, who meets with lobbyists on occasion, recently sold his political consulting company to Cox for an undisclosed sum, according to the vice president’s office. Cox did not respond to a request for comment.

The circle of influence can be seen in the example of an Indiana-based summer carnival company that needed help navigating the federal bureaucracy last year.

That business, North American Midway Entertainment, hired Grand last year to lobby Pence, the president’s office and the Labor Department, after the company found itself denied its traditional allotment of seasonal H-2B visas for foreign workers to operate its rides.

After later receiving a batch of hundreds of emergency visas, company owner Danny Huston made the maximum allowable donations to Great America and Greg Pence’s campaign.

A spokeswoman for Huston discussed the companies frustrations over visa allocations but stopped responding to questions when asked about the lobbying of Pence.

Grand, whose firm reported $130,000 in billings from Huston’s company, said in an interview that he was professionally obligated not to comment on his work for specific clients, who do not want publicity for their efforts.

“If you are a business guy and you can get this resolved and move on with your life, do you want to be on the front page of The Washington Post?” Grand said.

But Grand said it should come as no surprise that he has better access to the vice president’s office now than he did during the Obama administration. “Joe Biden’s staff is not going to take my call,” he said, noting that he was never invited to a White House event by Obama. 

Grand has been an ally of Pence’s since they met after Pence graduated from law school in the late 1980s. Grand worked in Florida on behalf of George W. Bush during the 2000 election recount, and Pence encouraged him to join the national finance team at the Republican National Committee. “People are allowed to have friends,” Grand said.

In 2017, his firm registered to lobby for 68 clients, doubling his roster from the 34 clients in the previous year. Of the 68 clients, lobbying disclosures for 26 list the vice president’s office as a point of contact.

In October 2017, Grand’s lobbying firm also reported contacting the vice president’s office on behalf of the Democratic Party of Albania and the Congress of Guatemala. The firm was paid a total of $218,423 by those two clients in the preceding six months, according to disclosures. The firm reported contacting Pence’s office in an effort to set up meetings with a delegation from each country.

Grand said he tried to help companies work their way through a regulatory process he called “100 percent abusive” to the private sector. As an example, he said, a corporate client he declined to name had been hurt by a personal dispute between an employee and a regulator. 

“All I had to do was get in front of the right people and say the guy you don’t like is no longer with us,” Grand said. With that, he added, an 18-year-old conflict faded away.

Michelle Lee contributed to this report.