Joe Tanner & Associates is a power player in Georgia politics because its players have had the power.
Founder Joe Tanner was commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources. His executive vice president, Harold Reheis, is a former director of the state Environmental Protection Division. Another partner, David Word, is a former assistant EPD director.
And this year Tanner added to his collection. In December, EPD Director Allen Barnes resigned his state post. In January, he was president and CEO of Tanner & Associates.
Tanner and several other Georgia lobbying firms are on one side of a revolving door through which powerful legislators and well-placed bureaucrats often pass, trading their political experience for well-paid lobbying jobs.
Some fear these post-political experts wield too much influence, and Tanner said he does not blame them.
“I think people think you have got an advantage, and I think that’s a fair concern, because you probably do,” he said. “On the other hand I think it’s how you conduct yourself.”
Tanner said his job is to “provide good information to the General Assembly or executive branch so they can make good decisions.”
The firm’s reputation, which only partially rests on the government résumés of its members, would not last if his lobbyists misled lawmakers, he said.
Door swings both ways
To a great degree, Tanner specializes in getting government permits for cities, counties and developers looking to build reservoirs. His connections to EPD and intimate knowledge of its inner workings are valuable commodities.
Sally Bethea, executive director of the Upper Chattahoochee Riverkeeper and a lobbyist herself, said facing off against Tanner’s firm on an environmental issue is “unsettling.”
“It’s frustrating and very troubling when an EPD director who may have made a decision or issued a permit that we have concerns about leaves the public job, moves into the private sector and then represents the people he gave the permit to,” she said.
The revolving door works both ways, with lobbyists often ducking back into public service for a time.
After Barnes quit the top EPD job, Gov. Nathan Deal named Judson Turner to replace him. Turner was Gov. Sonny Perdue’s lawyer for nearly three years and his point man in the tri-state water litigation before leaving in 2008 to become a lobbyist with the firm Georgia 360. His expense reports from 2009 show he lobbied, among others, Perdue’s office.
Deal named another Georgia 360 partner, Heath Garrett, to the state ethics commission, the only state office with responsibility for regulating lobbying. Prior to his lobbying career, Garrett was U.S. Rep. Johnny Isakson’s chief of staff.
Bob Irvin, a House Republican leader until 2002, believes lobbyists play a vital role at the Legislature. But the cross-pollination of lobbying and politics makes him uncomfortable.
“Lobbying is sort of a mixture of information conveyance and influence peddling. The information conveyance part of it is very valuable. It would be hard to conduct the business of the Legislature without it,” he said. “The influence peddling part of it is a cancer.”
A no-limit game in Georgia
Some states have tried to limit lobbyists’ influence by banning or restricting the meals and gifts they buy for legislators, or by prohibiting political contributions from them. Georgia has no such limits, enabling lobbyists here to reinforce their political connections with cash.
For instance, Georgia 360 made $69,775 in campaign contributions in the last election cycle, the largest ($9,950) going to Deal, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Eighty-five percent of the money went to ruling Republicans, but some Democratic leaders, like House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, D-Atlanta, also received donations.
Along with campaign cash, the firm spent $14,233 last year on gifts for lawmakers and their staffs. Political connections and cash are almost always a winning combination, with most of the state’s top firms following a similar pattern. Contributions favor incumbents, party leaders and committee chairs.
Tanner’s firm supplemented its reservoir of political experience in 2011 with nearly $14,000 in gifts, most going to pay for two dozen large dinners and receptions for groups of lawmakers.
The firm also has made $261,000 in political donations since 2004. Most of that money – 80 percent – went to Republicans.
Tanner said his firm tries to be both strategic and lucky.
“I’ve been able to pick every recent governor. That’s helpful to us,” he said.
Tanner — like most of Atlanta’s savvy lobbyists — favors incumbents with whom he has built relationships. In the last four electoral cycles, just a handful of candidates to whom he contributed lost.
“We typically like to watch and see who’s likely to have opposition, who does have opposition and we tend to support the incumbent,” he said, adding “unless the incumbent is someone we don’t have a good relationship with.”
Short cooling-off periods
Georgia, like most states, has a revolving door policy that prohibits certain public officials from becoming lobbyists for a year after they leave office. It applies to elected officials and directors of state departments, but not to officials who might be lower on the food chain but highly connected nonetheless.
There are ways around it, too. Barnes, for instance, has to wait a year to register as a lobbyist, but that did not prohibit the former EPD director from taking Tanner’s offer as CEO of an office full of lobbyists. Tanner said he supports the one-year waiting period and has Barnes doing work unconnected with lobbying, including recruiting new clients.
The one-year cooling-off period is pretty common among the states. Alabama’s two-year policy on all public employees covers a variety of activities beyond lobbying. For instance, government attorneys may not represent clients against the state for two years.
Irvin, who favors a two-year cooling off period in Georgia, says the program should work both ways, with lobbyists forced to sit out two years before running for office or accepting a high political appointment.
Hard to measure influence
Right now, the picture seems clear. Lobbyists spent large amounts of money on campaign contributions and gifts, boosting the majority party and legislative leaders while spreading enough cash around to keep connections with a majority of legislators.
But does it matter? Are these lobbyists, in reality, more influential than anyone else?
“A lot of the influence of lobbyists occurs at the beginning of the process,” said John Scott, a public policy professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has studied lobbying networks. The importance of meetings, hallway conversations and long-term relationships is hard for researchers to measure, he said.
In interviews for his research, Scott said, most lobbyists say they do not expect legislators will change their vote in exchange for a campaign contribution. But they do expect donations will get them in the door to make their case.
“That is influencing the system because a lot of people aren’t able to get that door open in the first place,” he said.
Lobbyist Brad Alexander, who worked for U.S. Reps. Bob Barr and Johnny Isakson before spending two years as Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s chief of staff, said Atlanta should not be confused with Washington, D.C., particularly when it comes to access.
“In state government, getting meetings is relatively easy. You don’t need to hire us to do that,” he said. Instead, Alexander said, the value of his government experience is that he knows which doors to knock on.
“A lot of what happens in state legislatures is not readily transparent if you are working on it for the first time,” he said. “There is this mix of statute, rule and custom on how things get done.”
When he started lobbying, Alexander already had relationships with legislators. He said he just tried to be above board about it.
“I try to preface every meeting by reminding them I am there on behalf of a client, trying to remind them even if they already know,” he said.
Cagle spokesman Ben Fry said the lieutenant governor is “ethical and honorable” and is not swayed by the fact that his former top staffer is now a lobbyist. “He is careful to always keep professional and personal issues separate in any situation or relationship,” Fry said.
He would not characterize the relationship between the men, except to say they have known each other for years.
Alexander founded Georgia 360 but now is a senior vice president in McGuireWoods Consulting’s Atlanta office.
Alexander said his political résumé undoubtedly helped his lobbying business. He said he just tries to be judicious in how he uses that clout.
“It would cause confusion if you were not very explicit about what hat you were wearing,” he said.
Some top players
Former public officials-turned-lobbyists are commonplace at the state Capitol. Here is a list of some of the top lobbyists who made the jump from serving in government to influencing it. (The list does not include numerous high-level staff members and bureaucrats who also switched.)
● Pete Robinson, former president pro tem of the Senate and Democratic majority leader in the 1990s
● Arthur “Skin” Edge, who served 10 years in the Senate, including a stint as leader of the Senate Republicans
● Boyd Pettit, a Democrat who served five terms in the House and is a former DOT board member
● Six-term Republican Sen. Chuck Clay, who also served as chairman of the state GOP
● Eric Johnson, a gubernatorial candidate and former Republican leader in the Senate
● Dan Lee, a three-term Republican senator who was Perdue’s floor leader and one of several lobbyists to serve on Deal’s transition team
How we got the story
Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Chris Joyner developed background profiles of the Capitol’s high-profile lobbyists, including their campaign contributions, expenditure reports and client lists, to illuminate how lobbyists graduate from elected office and government jobs to high-paid lobbying careers. He followed up by talking to lobbyists, legislators and academics about how these connections benefit lobbyists and their clients.