Republican congressman Steve Southerland is throwing attack after attack against his Democratic challenger, Gwen Graham, including the dreaded L-word: "lobbyist."
In a Sept. 10, 2014, campaign commercial, Southerland, who represents a northern Florida district, accused the daughter of former Florida Gov. Bob Graham of a host of left-wing positions.
"Graham was a Washington lobbyist and liberal political consultant who has taken thousands of dollars from Nancy Pelosi and her special interest allies," the commercial said. It also said she is "hiding the truth" that she supported the Affordable Care Act and was "handpicked" by Pelosi -- the House Democratic leader -- to run for the congressional seat.
Politicians often turn to lobbying when their public careers have ended, but it’s less common for a lobbyist to run for office. Rep. David Jolly, who won a special election in March to succeed the late C.W. Bill Young in Pinellas County’s 13th District, spent years as a lobbyist, but he won despite attacks on his lobbying history by his Democratic opponent, former state CFO Alex Sink.
Graham has been touting her resume as an attorney and employee of the Leon County School District. Did she once serve as a Washington lobbyist?
In 1988, Graham graduated with a law degree from American University. She then worked with the firm Andrews & Kurth, a law firm that also did lobbying for some clients.
One of those clients was the Secondary Lead Smelters Association. Southerland’s team pointed to lobbying disclosure records from 1989 and 1990 that list Gwendolyn G. Logan, Graham’s married name at the time. The lobbying paperwork says in part that the work was to "promote battery recycling legislation and other legislation affecting the secondary lead industry."
In addition, Southerland points to an October 1990 handwritten staff note on the Lead Exposure Reduction Act from Bob Graham’s archive at the University of Florida. The note included the sentence from a staffer, "Put lead bill & materials in envelope to Becky for Gwen from BG," which Southerland’s camp considers proof of influence.
Graham’s campaign quickly responded that her name being on disclosure forms was not proof of lobbying, because she did not participate in any such activity. It was her employer who listed her name on the forms. She even supplied a letter from her former Andrews & Kurth supervisor to prove it. The supervisor, Rob Steinwurtzel, wrote in a letter that the documents in question were not proof of Southerland’s claim.
"We listed everybody in our group on the form, regardless whether they actually performed lobbying activities or not," Steinwurtzel told the Tampa Bay Times. "She came as a first-year associate and basically, first-year associates spend a lot of time in the library. She did not go to meetings with legislators or advocate on behalf of clients. I’m pretty certain about that."
As for the handwritten note, the campaign said at the time the note was written, Graham was bed-ridden for a high-risk pregnancy. She gave birth to daughter Sarah three weeks later and soon left the firm. The staffer’s direction from her father could have referred to anything, the campaign said.
Graham’s campaign had D.C. law firm Sandler Reiff explore the legality of Graham’s name being listed on the forms. The firm concluded that the filings in question fell under the purview of the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, which preceded the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act in effect today.
Under the earlier rules, Graham would have had to have been in direct contact with members of Congress for herself or her clients, self-report her work, have done substantial work on the legislation in question, and register herself a lobbyist, although doing a certain amount of work for a client fell under the reporting threshold. She had done none of these things. It was also common practice for a firm to list all support staff, with no regard to what they had actually done for the client, Sandler Reiff’s Joshua Rosenstein concluded.
Lobbying experts we spoke to agreed that rules were much different before the Lobbying Disclosure Act, and that undermines Southerland’s attack.
"I think her firm is right by saying they were being overly compliant," said Lisa Gilbert, director of the Congress Watch Division for liberal consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen. "Under the definitions at the time she certainly did not perform lobbying activities. That said, to a layman, her support would seem like lobbying. You can’t tell from the documentation."
Dan Auble, a lobbying researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, said he wasn’t entirely familiar with requirements the earlier Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act, but the weakness of the paperwork is that you have to take Graham’s employer’s word for it.
"If you take what the law firm is saying on its face, then she really didn’t," Auble said, although it’s possible the firm is stretching the truth. He said things have changed in Washington in the last 25 years -- and that’s something to keep in mind when considering Southerland’s claim.
"People used to list names in the report because there was no stigma related to the word ‘lobbyist,' " he said. "Now no one wants to be called a lobbyist."
Southerland said Graham "was a Washington lobbyist." Even if it’s true that Graham lobbied, it would have been for a brief period a quarter-century ago. But it’s not at all clear that the charge is true.
Southerland’s campaign based their attack on paperwork from the law firm Graham worked for after earning her law degree, listing her among the support staff. However, Graham provided a note from her supervisor saying that she was a researcher at the time and had not done actual lobbying work. She was listed because listing junior and support staff was a common practice at the time, according to a law firm retained by the Graham campaign. Experts we talked to agreed.
At most, Graham’s inclusion on disclosure forms may have technically made her part of a lobbying effort, but there’s little evidence to suggest what, if anything, she did. The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression, so we rate it Mostly False.