Lobbyist Prospers as Charges Loom
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 10, 1999; Page A1
One year ago, lobbyist Ann Eppard was indicted on charges of taking payoffs while working as a congressional aide and stealing from the campaign of the congressman for whom she was employed.
Ordinarily, this might destroy a lobbying business. Not for Eppard, who has a particularly close relationship with a particularly powerful committee chairman -- her former boss, Pennsylvania Republican Bud Shuster, who oversees billions in federal largess as head of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Since her indictment by a federal grand jury in Boston, Eppard has raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying fees -- more than $400,000 in the last six months of 1998 alone, according to recently released disclosure reports. Her total billings of $1.5 million for the year kept pace with those for 1997, the year before her indictment.
New clients have sought Eppard's services and, while some have dropped her, most of the old ones have stuck with Eppard -- all seeking to capitalize on her access to Shuster and her decades-deep knowledge of the committee. She has continued as Shuster's chief fund-raiser, organizing a sumptuous event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Philadelphia last October and remaining on the campaign payroll as a $3,000-a-month fund-raiser.
Eppard's experience since her indictment -- she has pleaded not guilty and no trial date has been set -- provides a pointed illustration of the realpolitik of the Washington lobbying world: What matters to clients is not who you are but who you know, and your ability to get results.
"Frankly the indictment did not affect our business relationship at all," said Pennsylvania transportation consultant Joseph W. McMahon, whose firm paid Eppard about $60,000 last year. McMahon was clear about Eppard's value to his firm: "She helped us to get to visit with a number of legislators -- Chairman Shuster, of course."
"Our issues are really unrelated, I guess is the point," said another client, David Plavin, president of the Airports Council International-North America, a trade association that represents major airports. "Our sense is, it is obviously an issue for her, and she's going to have to figure out how to deal with it," he said of the indictment. "But from our point of view, the professional services we ask from her are not in connection with the same set of issues."
Indeed, Eppard's indictment stems from allegations involving her tenure as a Shuster staff member. And while congressional watchdog groups have strongly criticized the conduct of Shuster and Eppard since she ended up on the other side of the revolving door, they also acknowledge that the mere fact that she's continuing to lobby after being indicted is not illegal. What her success underscores, they say, is a broader reality about life in Washington.
"Not only is she getting clients, she's doing really, really well. So why is that? This is a story that explains a lot about how Washington lobbying and the purchase of influence really works," said Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project, which filed a 1996 complaint to the House ethics committee saying the ties between Eppard and Shuster "lead to the appearance that those wealthy enough to pay the pricey fees of top lobbyists may receive special legislative favors."
Eppard declined to comment, saying, "I think at this point my attorneys feel it would be better if I just didn't say anything. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to."
Shuster, who on the day of Eppard's indictment dismissed the charges as "a political indictment, pure and simple" and praised his former aide as "one of the finest, most decent and dedicated persons I have ever known," also declined to comment. Shuster remains under investigation by federal authorities as well as the House ethics committee.
The 56-year-old Eppard began working for Shuster in 1969 and left his staff in 1994, shortly before the Republicans seized control of Congress and he ascended to the transportation committee chairmanship. She built a lucrative lobbying business, Ann Eppard Associates Ltd., attracting a dazzling array of transportation clients seeking a piece of the $217 billion highway bill that Shuster ramrodded through Congress last summer.
It was a good year for transportation funding -- and for Shuster. He raised and spent $1.5 million, even though he ran unopposed. Several of Eppard's clients -- American Maritime Officers, Capital Partnerships, Delta Development, Boucher & James, Zamias Services, Matthew Outdoor Advertising and Thelen, Reid & Priest -- together contributed $30,000 to Shuster's campaign.
Eppard's work with McMahon Associates last year is fairly typical. The firm, which conducts engineering planning studies, works for government agencies nationwide.
"We wanted to see the departments of transportation we work for get a lot of funding," McMahon said. "Frankly, it's important to our business and one of the reasons we hired her. We were very happy with her work and with the bill."
McMahon said his firm, which also does access planning for airports, is working with Eppard again this year, when an airport trust fund is the target of Shuster's efforts to increase spending for infrastructure improvements.
Asked if the indictment troubled him, McMahon countered with a question: "Was she convicted? Frankly, I'm a very strong proponent of the American system of justice that says you're innocent until proven guilty. That's been shown to be the case recently at the very highest levels of government." Other aviation interests have also sought Eppard's help this year, with apparent success. For example, Shuster's committee last month approved allowing airports to double passenger facility charges, a fee tacked on to fliers' ticket charges that is currently capped at $3.
"The [passenger facility charge] proposal is in the House bill, and it wasn't there before, and it isn't on the Senate side. She would have something to do with that," said an aviation lobbyist who thinks highly of Eppard.
The law firm of Thelen, Reid & Priest brought in Eppard, and paid her $120,000, to help with their work on the passenger charge and the freeing up of the trust fund for the Airports Council International. "We have worked with her on numerous other client engagements and have found her to be a quintessential professional," said aviation lawyer Stephan M. Minikes. "She has lobbied many members -- not just the chairman."
Federal prosecutors allege that Eppard, when she was Shuster's chief of staff and assistant treasurer of his campaign, used "her official position . . . to enrich herself by soliciting and accepting illegal gratuities from persons seeking official acts from the congressional office." The seven-count indictment charges that Eppard took $230,000 in illegal payments and embezzled $27,500 from Shuster's campaign committee between 1989 and 1995.
Also pleading not guilty in the case is lobbyist Vernon A. Clark, 69, who allegedly funneled gratuities from two Boston businessmen who wanted Eppard's help in fighting plans to take their properties for a federally funded highway project in Boston known as the Big Dig.
In court filings, Eppard has waived all speedy trial considerations, making it unlikely that the case will be tried this year. Also delaying the proceedings is a pending Supreme Court decision stemming from the acquittal of former agriculture secretary Mike Espy, who was accused of accepting $5,900 in illegal gifts from a lobbyist for Sun-Diamond Growers of California. The core issue before the court -- whether a particular gift must be intended to influence a particular official act -- bears on the Eppard case. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston declined to comment.
Of 27 clients registered in 1998, seven filed lobbying reports terminating their relationship with her after the indictment. "Generally we let our filings speak for themselves," said a spokesman for Verner, Liipfert, Bernhard, McPherson and Hand, one of the seven. "I don't think we'd have anything additional to say."
There are those who acknowledge feeling uncomfortable hiring Eppard. "We had an associate here who recommended we hire her," said Joseph E. McMahon of McMahon and Associates, a Washington public affairs firm unrelated to the Pennsylvania McMahon firm that employs Eppard. "But really, when I understood who she was we didn't move ahead." Asked why, McMahon said, "I don't want to be quoted criticizing anyone."
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.
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