Convicted ex-lawmakers enjoy access as lobbyists
Webster's dictionary defines “prowess” as having knowledge or expertise about a particular activity or field.
So it's no surprise that former Pennsylvania House speaker Bill DeWeese, known for his flamboyant vocabulary, chose the word when naming the one-man lobbying shop he launched this year in Harrisburg.
The former Greene County Democrat served 36 years in the state House before his 2012 felony conviction for using state resources for political gain. He now enjoys prowling the halls of Harrisburg on behalf of union clients.
“As a former member who served over three and a half decades — about two-thirds of that time as the Democratic leader — I do find it a fun and jovial challenge to make strenuous entreaties to an overwhelmingly robust Republican majority in both chambers,” DeWeese said.
Numerous former lawmakers, legislative staff and cabinet officials in Washington, D.C., and state capitals across the country have turned to lobbying. Pennsylvania requires a one-year waiting period before lawmakers and agency officials can begin lobbying former colleagues.
DeWeese is among a small group of Pennsylvania lawmakers-turned-lobbyists who spent the waiting period behind bars. Others include former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, House Democratic Whip Mike Veon of Beaver County and Senate Majority Leader Joe Loeper of Delaware County — all of whom left office for prison after being convicted of abuses of power.
That distinction draws winces in some circles.
Barry Kauffman, the former executive director of Pennsylvania Common Cause, said he attempted to persuade lawmakers to ban former public officials convicted of felonies from lobbying state officials — first after Loeper returned as a lobbyist and then a decade ago when the last major series of legislative indictments came down against leaders including DeWeese, Veon and Perzel.
“I worked to achieve an amendment to the lobbyist disclosure law so a person could not be a lobbyist for pay and take advantage of the system they had abused, if they had been convicted of misfeasance, malfeasance or abuse of power,” Kauffman said. “But it never gained much traction.”
Bryn Mawr lawyer Mark Schwartz, a onetime aide to late House Speaker K. Leroy Irvis, urged lawmakers to act in a 2014 letter to former Gov. Tom Corbett and legislative leaders. He said permitting lawmakers convicted of abuses of power to become lobbyists promotes a culture of corruption.
“I really think the reason Pennsylvania is so corrupt is these guys get a pay increase by becoming lobbyists. It's like no big deal. It's a rite of passage. You start as a reformer, you get co-opted by the money and perks, you get caught, and then come back as a lobbyist,” Schwartz said. “I resigned from the Trial Lawyers Association when they hired Joe Loeper as a lobbyist.”
Loeper, a Delaware County Republican, served in the Senate from 1979 through 2000, when he was sentenced to six months in prison for federal income tax fraud. Prosecutors said he attempted to hide some $300,000 in outside income.
The 73-year-old popular former lawmaker created a template others could hope to follow when he returned to Harrisburg as a lobbyist and promptly attracted a slew of clients, including charter schools, universities and energy and insurance companies, among others.
Loeper did not return a call for comment, nor did Perzel — who now lobbies for charter schools — or Veon, who represents the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
DeWeese serves as a lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers union that represents thousands of employees of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. He estimates he spends 45 to 50 weeks a year in the Capitol, staying busy during Republican-led efforts to dismantle the state-controlled wine and spirits system.
Randy Haynie, of Louisiana-based Haynie & Associates and president of the National Association of State Lobbyists, said he is not familiar with any Pennsylvania lawmakers who turned to lobbying after prison. But that in and of itself should not disqualify someone from the trade, he said.
“I think everybody has a right to go on and make a living, no matter what's happened in their past, if they are doing it properly, legally, ethically and doing a good job. They have to have a profession,” Haynie said.
The numbers alone suggest that lobbying is a profession in which former lawmakers can thrive.
While former lawmakers with criminal records may comprise only a tiny minority of the profession, Haynie estimated that about 20 percent of the governmental affairs professionals, as lobbyists prefer to be called, in Washington, D.C., are former members of Congress, while about 15 percent of those who lobby statehouses around the country are former lawmakers or executive-level staffers.
Insiders say former lawmakers and high-level staffers have the advantage of knowing the lay of the land.
David Hess, a former top environmental official under governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, said it's hard to break into lobbying without the right experience.
“The General Assembly could be a foreign country if you don't know the customs, the language, the idiosyncrasies,” said Hess, who lobbies on environmental issues at Crisci Associates in Harrisburg. “You can certainly teach that to someone, but you'd be much further ahead to hire someone who's had some experience in those customs.”
The demand for such expertise has mushroomed in recent decades as every sector from business and industry to energy and higher education strives to gain traction and reap rewards from government.
“Today, everybody has somebody other than their elected officials watching every word put on every sheet of paper,” Haynie said. “Legislators today have more information to make a decision than they ever have had. Now multiple people are giving information to legislators. Legislators are getting more information on both sides of a bill.”
Mike Manzo, who was DeWeese's chief of staff before pleading guilty and becoming a pivotal witness in the state's “Bonusgate” prosecution, said hiring former lawmakers and staff is an advantage for clients seeking influence in the legislative process.
“If you're looking for someone to champion your issue in the halls of state government, you want someone who worked in the halls of state government,” Manzo said.
While DeWeese, Veon and Perzel boast only a handful of clients, Manzo has flourished in his new profession. He is a registered lobbyist and vice president of strategic engagement at Triad Strategies, one of Harrisburg's most-active government affairs firms.
Manzo said his advantage comes from “having grown up inside the building” and learning how to successfully navigate the convoluted processes and work the levers of the capitol machinery.
“I've seen all the points you have to touch to be successful,” he said.