By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER
Five towns in Colorado have become magnets for federal money. And besides their small size, they have one other thing in common: They’ve all hired the same, soft- spoken lobbyist, Kenneth Lee.
From 2000 to 2006, those towns with a combined population of just over 17,000, won 20 separate budget earmarks totaling $13.3 million.
"He’s a hero to me," said James Stearns, an Eldorado Springs, Colo., resident who recruited Lee to win $250,000 for a sewage treatment plant. "He just seems really friendly, down to earth."
Lee’s winning streak surprises even some congressional insiders, and the way he’s paid raises concerns among government watchdogs.
They question the up-to-7 percent "success fees" he gets each time he wins a special set-aside in the federal budget. Others say Lee’s record illustrates the way Congress picks who gets special pots of federal funds and who does not.
"You’re not completely shut out of the process if you don’t have a lobbyist. But guess what: It’s a lot easier when you have a lobbyist," said David Williams, vice president of Citizens Against Government Waste.
Nationally there has been an explosion in lobbying and a drastic increase in the number of annual budget earmarks by Congress.
Earmarks are special line items slipped into massive spending bills to fund lawmakers’ pet projects. They are awarded to cities and counties, government agencies, nonprofit groups, universities, hospitals, tribes, museums and other groups.
"Everyone has the right to have a lobbyist …. That should not be a prerequisite to getting federal dollars," said Keith Ashdown, formerly of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "We should be picking projects based on merit, not by the power of the lawmaker or the lobbyist backing the project."
Lee said that’s just the way the system works these days. He’s surprised that anyone would take notice of his work.
"I’m such a small fry in the lobbying business," he says with a laugh. "I’ve got a staff of me."
Lee skips some of the practices that have gotten other lobbyists in trouble. For one thing, while he might take a congressional staff member to lunch once in a while, he said he won’t "wine and dine" them because his religion forbids alcohol.
"As a non-drinking Mormon, there is no ‘wining,’ " he says. "And the perception of exotic trips and huge expense account lunches, it just kind of makes me laugh."
Lee says there’s no big secret to his winning ways.
He mostly sticks with public-sector clients. He helps them identify worthy projects that have wide community support. He locates obscure pots of money buried in phone- book-thick appropriations bills. He tailors applications to match sticky federal guidelines.
Then he makes sure the key congressional offices hear about the client’s needs _ again and again.
In the old days, only the biggest cities, wealthiest companies, and best- bankrolled special interest groups could afford the steep monthly retainer it takes to have a representative working the halls of power in Washington, D.C.
A standard rate can be $10,000 to $15,000 per month, with no guarantee that a community is going to win anything out of Congress.
But lobbyists like Lee have reached out to communities that are barely dots on the maps by letting them pay token retainer fees _ as small as $250 per month _ if they sign contracts agreeing to give the lobbyist a percentage of whatever they are able to win.
Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is trying to outlaw "success fees," the same way that 39 states have banned lobbyists from working on a percentage basis when trying to get money out of state legislatures.
Scott said he got involved when a nonprofit group from his district reported being approached out of the blue by a lobbyist who promised to win big budget earmarks in exchange for 20 percent of the take.
Scott sees contingency-fee arrangements as part of a cycle: Lobbyists give campaign contributions to lawmakers; the lawmakers give earmarked funds to the lobbyist’s clients; the clients hand a portion of the taxpayer money back to lobbyists; and the cycle starts again.
Still, in most circumstances, such fees are perfectly legal even though the Supreme Court since the mid-1800s has frowned on the arrangement, calling it "inconsistent with sound morals or public policy." In a 1906 case, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote the agreements "necessarily invited and tended to induce improper solicitations."
This summer, Scott proposed legislation calling for a congressional study of contingency fees for lobbyists. The provision passed the House Judiciary Committee as part of a package of lobbying reforms, but the language disappeared before the bill reached the House floor for a vote.
Scott was incensed.
"Some people didn’t even want to consider a vote on whether or not to study," he said, "so you know you touched a nerve."
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)