Easy Street: The Bud Shuster Interchange
By Eric Pianin and Charles R. Babcock
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, April 5, 1998
Page One of Four
They're standing 15 deep at the door to a party room at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, waiting to celebrate Bud Shuster's 66th birthday. A birthday party for a powerful congressional committee chairman always draws a crowd, even at $1,000 a plate. But with a six-year, $218 billion highway reauthorization bill on the table, nobody wants the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to be lonely on this late January night.
And so they have come, these men and women, most of whom are lobbyists for the transportation industry. The turnout ranges from planes to trains to automobiles, from asphalt and concrete to billboards to roadway reflectors: Union Pacific, American Airlines, 3M, the Associated General Contractors, the Outdoor Advertising Association of America, and so on. As the doors open, the party room quickly fills with cocktail chatter and the clink of ice in tumblers.
Except the guest of honor is nowhere to be seen. Shuster, a Pennsylvania Republican halfway through his 13th term, is somewhat shy. Working a room is not his favorite pastime. In his stead, a woman named Ann Eppard is standing by the door in a black cocktail dress, greeting the guests she has invited.
Like just about everyone else in the room, Eppard is a transportation lobbyist. Like no one else, she can draw on a relationship with the chairman that goes back 25 years. Before November 1994, Eppard was Shuster's most trusted aide, his $100,000-a-year chief of staff. She was his political adviser, traveling companion, principal fund-raiser and friend. She drove him to work in the morning. And then shortly before the Republican takeover of Congress, she left his staff to open her own lobbying firm.
She and Shuster, however, remain close. They still dine together frequently. They still travel together frequently. She still exercises influence over the operation of his congressional office.
And she is still his principal fund-raiser.
Which is why she is spending the drinks-and-hors-d'oeuvres portion of this evening greeting the guests. Shuster arrives and starts shaking hands he is a diminutive but powerfully built man given to dark suits and monogrammed white shirts; he has the aura of a self-confident CEO but his entrance precedes the call to dinner by just a few minutes. Soon everyone is seated in the dining room and the Caesar salad and salmon are being served. Then the dinner dishes are being cleared away and the cake is being presented. Then the assembled lobbyists are singing "Happy Birthday" and the chairman is delivering remarks on the economic and public safety benefits of America's roadways and the dining room is beginning to empty out.
And just like that, the chairman's reelection campaign grosses $150,000.
Bud Shuster and Ann Eppard do this sort of thing fairly often. In fact, they celebrated his 66th birthday in this way not once but three times. And those parties represent a small fraction of the fund-raisers that the Shuster for Congress Committee has held over the last year.
In the landscape of political Washington, congressional staffers who become lobbyists are as common as dirt. So are lobbyists who raise campaign money for incumbents well-positioned to serve their interests. And so, for that matter, are well-positioned incumbents who accept campaign contributions from lobbyists. But Shuster and Eppard have few peers when it comes to working the current campaign finance system. They have so intertwined their official, professional, political and personal lives that it is often hard to discern one kind of activity from another. Their continuing partnership, which includes her serving as a $3,000-a-month consultant to his campaign, represents the system taken to a logical extreme.
"You know this goes on all the time in this town, where lobbyists are very deeply involved in candidates' campaigns," Shuster says. "The most honest thing to do was for my campaign to hire her, pay her $3,000 a month, so everything is aboveboard. So no one can say she's out there, as is common in this town, doing favors for a member without getting paid for it."
Eppard, for her part, says: "If you look at our [campaign] reports, people can understand who is helping, how they are helping, where the money is coming from and where we spend it. If you get down to what is the sublevel in Washington, there are a lot of people who help members get reelected and lobby their committee, and it doesn't show up anywhere."
The fruits of their partnership are considerable.
During the five elections from 1986 to 1994, the campaign raised $2.4 million, even though Shuster had no opponent in either the primary or the general elections. In 1995-96 after he became chairman Shuster for Congress raised $1.2 million, up half a million dollars from the 1994 cycle and 11 times more than his opponent (he won, with 74 percent of the vote). In 1997, the Shuster campaign raised nearly $800,000. Only five other members of the House, including Speaker Newt Gingrich, Majority Leader Richard K. Armey and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, raised more. And that was not an election year.
Stocking a hefty campaign war chest is common practice among seasoned politicians; it is an effective means of making potential opponents think twice. But the Shuster campaign has proved equally adept at spending, regardless of whether there's an opponent. Much of its spending has been on goods and services that bear only an indirect relation to getting people to vote for the candidate.
During the past six election cycles, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Shuster campaign spent an average of $100,000 a year on hotels, airplane charters, restaurants, food and alcoholic beverages. In 1989-90, according to a study by the Los Angeles Times, the campaign spent $107,000 on meals alone, which was four times more than any other candidate. In 1991-92, he spent five times more for food and travel than he did to get out the vote. His meal tab for the cycle was about $75,000. The noted gourmand Dan Rostenkowski, who was then Ways and Means Committee chairman, had the second-highest meals tab. He spent about $28,000.
"I have an ironclad rule that any time we're involved in anything, if there's a question of whether it's political or congressional, the campaign pays for it so taxpayers don't," Shuster says. "We use dinners as fund-raisers . . . and we do one almost every night. We could spend, say, $20,000 for a fund-raiser dinner to raise $50,000. There's a lot of that . . . We're very big on staying in touch with our supporters."
As Shuster's chief of staff, Eppard was central not only to his fund-raising, but also to the operation of his office, the politicking that kept him in office, and the deal-making that comes with ranking membership on such a heavy-spending committee as Transportation. After she left his staff, she relinquished few of these roles. Meanwhile her lobbying firm, Ann Eppard Associates Ltd., enjoyed robust growth, from billings of $400,000 in 1995 to $1 million in 1996 to an annualized rate of $1.4 million for the first half of last year.
Now they still crisscross the country together, the Transportation chairman and the transportation lobbyist. As they do, they combine the chairman's tours of proposed cloverleafs and bridges with the candidate's fund-raising events with the occasional pursuit of leisure in places like Manhattan, Florida and the West.
This has not escaped the attention of congressional watchdogs.
Kent Cooper, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign money, says theirs is "the most blatant example" of questionable ties between members of Congress and lobbyists who prosper while raising money for a former boss. "He mixes official and campaign activities to such an extent that the fairness of his official actions is immediately called into question."
John Eichelberger Jr., chairman of the Blair County Board of Commissioners in Shuster's congressional district, is one of the few Republicans openly critical of Shuster's conduct. "He has set himself up with Eppard's guidance as a dynasty," Eichelberger says. "I think there are too many ethical questions for anyone to be comfortable with."
In February 1996, Roll Call, the twice-weekly Capitol Hill newspaper, printed the first report that Shuster was a frequent overnight guest at Eppard's town house. The article said that Shuster was seen leaving her place at 7 o'clock one morning and raised the question of whether his stays broke House rules on gifts to members.
"I'm so repelled," says Eppard. "I'm angry that I worked seven days a week, 14 hours a day, and made decisions that I would have a family and a career, and that somehow all of that got wiped away" by the innuendo and adverse publicity that came with the Roll Call article. The Shuster and Eppard families have been closely allied for more than 25 years, they say. Shuster, his wife, Patricia, and their five children have often stayed overnight at Eppard's home, just as she and her son have stayed with the Shusters on their farm in Everett, Pa. (Her marriage ended in divorce in 1975.) Shuster's son Bob, she says, also stayed at her house that night in February 1996.
For the record, she and Shuster each say their relationship is in no way romantic. "Let's face it," says Jeff Nelligan, Shuster's former Transportation Committee press secretary. "If Ann had a mustache and weighed 350 pounds, nobody would care."
That is not entirely the case. In response to the Roll Call article, the Congressional Accountability Project, which is affiliated with Ralph Nader, filed a complaint with the House ethics committee. Last November, the committee began an investigation into the complaint, an investigation that focuses on their professional relationship. One of the issues is whether Shuster's overnight stays constituted an illegal gratuity of more than $250. Another is whether Eppard broke a House rule barring former staffers from lobbying their bosses for a year.
Official scrutiny has come from another quarter as well: A federal grand jury in Boston has been looking into Shuster's and Eppard's activities as part of a long-running investigation into political corruption related to that city's $11 billion "Big Dig" highway-burial project. Two Boston-area businessmen who were fighting land-taking for the project contributed to the Shuster campaign and paid honorariums to him and Eppard in the early '90s. In addition, they paid consulting fees and made a loan to Eppard's son, Ralph, to help him open a car dealership. Prosecutors have declined to comment on the case, but they apparently want to know more about why the businessmen were so generous.
Shuster and Eppard have vigorously denied any wrongdoing in connection with their fund-raising, their spending of campaign funds, Shuster's official business or Eppard's lobbying business. They say they have adhered scrupulously to congressional and FEC regulations and disclosed their fund-raising and spending fully.
"I don't know how many examples there are of our trying to be meticulous and trying to do the right thing," Shuster says. "We are bitter that we have been so meticulous in trying to do something right, and all this political baloney has been thrown at us."
Right now, there is no telling how either investigation will play out. Defense attorneys and former prosecutors say such conflict-of-interest cases are hard to prove. And in any event, the allegations are rather narrow, involving specific acts and rules or laws. In the case of Shuster and Eppard, it might be more useful to look at what the law does allow.
Congress has been struggling to police campaign fund-raising ever since the Watergate scandal. Recent events the uproar over donors' weekending in the Lincoln Bedroom, or the death of the McCain-Feingold bill suggest that there is still no consensus on the role of money in American politics. Periodically, the system is tweaked, but not overhauled.
The Federal Election Commission, for example, tightened its rules in 1995, barring candidates from using donor money to pay bills that they would incur even if they weren't running for office such as their mortgage or grocery bill. But a close reading of the new regulations shows there is still plenty of room for candidates to travel or dine out regularly on the campaign committee tab, as long as they discuss politics somewhere between cocktails and dessert. That standard leaves a lot of latitude enough to drive a truckload of money through. An examination of Shuster and Eppard's partnership, based on his campaign records, her lobbying disclosure statements and interviews with them and others, shows how it's done.
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