Cantwell arranged contracts for lobbyist’s clients

Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell helped arrange more than $11 million in federal money in the past year for projects benefiting clients of a lobbyist who is advising her re-election campaign and still owes her money from a personal loan.

Cantwell, a Democrat who is in a tight re-election race, has reported for years that former campaign manager Ron Dotzauer owes her between $15,000 and $50,000 for a personal loan predating her first Senate election in 2000. Dotzauer now runs a lobbying firm.

The loan was still listed as outstanding on the financial disclosure report Cantwell filed in May. The senator’s office said Dotzauer continues to advise informally Cantwell’s campaign as an unpaid adviser.

Since last fall, Cantwell has helped persuade Senate appropriators to set aside $9.6 million — known as “earmarks” in congressional parlance — for a dam project benefiting two clients of Dotzauer’s firm and $2 million more for the biotechnology company Inologic also represented by his firm.

Cantwell’s spokesman said Thursday the senator’s efforts to secure the money had nothing to do with Dotzauer or his personal loan, and were driven by the fact that the projects benefited her home state.

“She believes a senator from Washington state should fight for the people and companies of the state when it comes to matters before the federal government. That’s part of her job,” spokesman Michael Meehan said.

Senate ethics rules require lawmakers to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest in taking official acts that benefit people with whom the senators have a personal financial interest.

Ethics experts said Cantwell’s case illustrates the difficulties lawmakers can get themselves into when they have personal dealings with a lobbyist who has client business before their offices. They said she should have avoided helping the clients or made sure the loan was repaid before she helped.

“It is clear that this financial relationship web between the senator and the lobbyist creates a huge conflict of interest,” said Ellen Miller, head of the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, which is working to highlight how lawmakers use earmarks to reward special interests.

“At the end of the day, there is a private lobbyist who is making a lot of money off her public actions. And it certainly appears, with the loan, to give her a stake in his financial success,” she said.

Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who runs Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which studies lawmakers’ ethical conduct, said she doubts Cantwell, a millionaire, acted because of the loan but nonetheless failed to avoid an appearance issue as required by ethics rules.

In a phone interview from his Seattle office, Dotzauer said he couldn’t recall the details about the loan he owes Cantwell from 2000, which occurred around the time he was running her first Senate campaign.

The lobbyist, 59, said he did not personally lobby Cantwell on the dam or biotechnology money, leaving that work instead to his firm’s two full-time lobbyists in Washington, D.C.

“I haven’t been to D.C. in a year and a half. I’m too old to fly to D.C,” he said. “I don’t lobby myself. I don’t have the patience for it.”

Last year, Cantwell helped secure $1.5 million for a dam project in her home state that is at the center of a deal between Puget Sound Energy Corp. and the Cascade Water Alliance.

Cantwell and fellow Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., also requested that Senate appropriators set aside $8.1 million more for the same dam and a related fish passage this summer.

Both utility interests were clients of Dotzauer’s Strategies 360 lobbying firm, and they reported paying his firm specifically to lobby for federal money for the dam project at Lake Tapps, located in Seattle’s fast-growing and politically important eastern suburbs.

Puget Sound Energy is selling the dam to the alliance, a coalition of eight municipal utilities. The federal money was designed to help convert the dam from producing electricity to supplying drinking water for the burgeoning suburban population.

Just a week after Dotzauer’s firm registered to lobby for Puget Sound Energy in February 2005, Cantwell reimbursed the company $2,285 on Feb. 9, 2005, for catering an event for her re-election campaign, Federal Election Commission records show. Meehan said the event occurred back in December 2004 and Cantwell was slow to reimburse for it.

Company executives have contributed $19,850 to Cantwell’s re-election.

By November 2005, Cantwell had succeeded in securing the initial money for the dam project that Puget Sound wanted, boasting about it in a news release after the project was included in a larger energy and water spending bill.

“These funds will help develop sustainable water management at Lake Tapps, protect salmon habitat, and address the drinking water needs of growing eastside suburban populations,” Cantwell said. In June, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved more money — $8.1 million — for the dam project.

Strategies 360 reported collecting $20,000 in 2005 from Puget Sound Energy for lobbying work described as “Seeking Funding For Lake Tapps.” The Cascade Water Alliance, meanwhile, paid Dotzauer’s firm $220,000 over several years for the same work, lobbying records show.

Meehan, Cantwell’s spokesman, said the senator began working on the Lake Tapps project shortly after taking office in 2001, “long before the alliance was formed or anybody else lobbied for it,” including Dotzauer.

Last October, Cantwell and Murray issued a joint announcement taking credit for securing $2 million in the 2006 defense spending bill to help a Seattle area company develop an anti-radiation drug.

The money will help Inologic Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., develop “a new drug that can be administered orally and be used to treat civilian and military victims of radiation exposure,” Murray and Cantwell said. Murray is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Inologic reported on its lobbying reports that it paid at least $150,000 to Dotzauer’s firm for lobbying work through 2005 to help it win federal money to develop an anti-radiation drug. Dotzauer said, however, the company hasn’t paid that money and still owes his firm.

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press