Photo: Colin Hackley
Big lobbying firms in Florida wear multiple hats
Entering the final week of last year’s legislative session, Miamibased Southern Wine & Spirits was on the brink of a big victory.
The Florida Senate had just passed, by a 35-2 vote, legislation that would have banned the sale of powdered alcohol (just add water) — a product that Southern, the world’s largest liquor distributor, viewed as a threat to the existing distribution system. The Florida House of Representatives immediately added the bill to its own calendar, teeing it up for a final vote.
Southern wasn’t the only one hoping to see the bill pass. The legislation included a separate provision, sought by the Cruise Lines International Association, aimed at reducing the amount of alcohol taxes cruise ships pay while in Florida ports.
But the legislation never made it across the finish line. Supporters of a different bill — a more controversial measure pushed primarily by Walmart that would have allowed grocery stores and big-box retailers to sell liquor — had been unable to get their own legislation through all the committees to which it had been assigned. So they drafted a last-minute amendment to merge their bill with the powdered-alcohol legislation. The entire package collapsed amid the floor fight.
At the center of the battle: Ballard Partners, the Tallahasseebased lobbying firm that earns more than $1 million every three months to lobby the Florida Legislature on behalf of more than 170 clients. During the 2015 session, the firm represented both Southern Wine & Spirits in its attempt to ban powdered alcohol and the Cruise Lines International Association in its attempt to win more favorable tax treatment. But it also represented Walmart in its bid sell liquor in its stores. And what Walmart wanted ultimately sabotaged what Southern Wine and CLIA wanted.
Brian Ballard, the prominent Republican fundraiser and strategist who founded Ballard Partners, declined to discuss the specifics of his firm’s lobbying for each client. But he says he and his partners take any potential conflicts of interest very seriously. The firm, Ballard says, obtains permission from existing clients before signing up a new one or engaging on a new issue that may pose a conflict.
“And we don’t go to folks if it’s an issue we don’t feel comfortable with. We don’t go to Honda and say, ‘Hey, can we represent Toyota?’ ” Ballard says. “On a weekly basis, there’s at least one client we’ll have to turn away.”
But as the battle over the alcohol legislation illustrates, lobbying conflicts aren’t always so easy to spot in advance. And some mem-bers of Tallahassee’s briefcase brigade privately grumble that more conflicts are surfacing every year, particularly with the rise of megafirms such as Ballard’s.
No lobbyist has proven more adept at navigating conflicts of interest over the years than Ron Book, the Miami-based lobbyist whose roster of clients is more than 100 deep.
In 2010, for instance, records show Book requested a waiver from Miami-Dade County to continue representing clients in the bail-bond industry, which was pursing legislation aimed at limiting pretrial release programs that county governments supported. In 2011, he requested a waiver from Broward County to continue representing private prison operator Geo Group — even though county commissioners had voted to oppose prison privatization. And in 2012, he requested a waiver from Miami to continue representing Assurance Financial Partners, which came out against a bill that the county was lobbying for that would have significantly reduced Miami-Dade’s workers’ compensation costs.
In all, Book has sought more than a dozen waivers from the two counties since 1999, with cases including his representation of apartment developers, the billboard industry and even the Miami Dolphins (which wanted to use county hotel taxes on stadium construction).
Like Ballard, Book says he has turned down many prospective clients in the past — including gambling interests and sports franchises — because they posed conflicts with entities he already represented. But he also says it is inevitable that unexpected conflicts will arise from time to time at any successful lobbying practice.
“When you’re at the top of the game, you’re just going to have these situations potentially occur,” he says. “When you have a full load of clients, just because you don’t have a conflict between party A and party B today doesn’t mean you won’t have one tomorrow.”
Some lobbyists say it can work to clients’ advantage to represent multiple interests on the same issue. “I represent a number of folks in the gambling world, and I think it’s generally helpful to be able to bring parties together when there’s no direct conflict,” Ballard says.
On the other hand, some smaller practices use their lack of potential conflicts as a competitive advantage. Jennifer Green, president and owner of the three-lobbyist firm Liberty Partners, says her firm chooses not to represent more than one client in a specific industry. So it represents just one telecom (AT&T) and one health plan (Humana), whereas some other firms have several clients in each sector. It has fewer than 20 clients altogether.
Green says her message to potential clients is, “I want to keep a longterm relationship with you. I will be 110% on your side. I’m able to walk into a room and say I’m only representing this one company and not others,” she adds. “It’s not like, ‘Well, whose hat are you wearing today?’ ”
Some clients have pushed back against conflicts. Last spring, for instance, Southern Strategy Group, which has more than 240 clients, signed up Airbnb, the fast-growing short-term-rental company that links people who want to rent rooms in their homes with travelers looking for accommodations. But the firm was forced to drop Airbnb less than one month later because another client — Walt Disney World — objected.
Just as the ride services company Uber has battled the taxicab industry, Airbnb has faced pushback from hoteliers who argue that its rooms should be subject to the same regulatory standards as conventional hotels. Disney is a major hotel operator, with approximately 27,000 rooms and timeshare suites across its central Florida resort. (Airbnb is now represented by a former Southern Strategy lobbyist working out of a rented space in a building the firm owns in Tallahassee.)
“We were disappointed that there was a conflict. But Walt Disney World is one of our oldest and best clients,” says Chris Dudley, a managing partner at Southern Strategy. “For us, conflicts tend to defer to the client that we’ve had the longest. You don’t give up old friends for new friends.”
Dudley says Southern Strategy, which now has nearly 50 lobbyists at 12 offices around the Southeast, including five in Florida, has taken steps to avoid similar situations. The firm now alerts all of its employees in advance, and in writing, of any potential new client and its legislative or regulatory issues. Employees then have time to call their existing clients and verify that no conflict exists.
“As we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve had to find ways to communicate with existing clients early on before we take on new ones,” Dudley says. “There are so many issues out there, and there are a lot of clients where you’re really working on one specific procurement or one specific regulatory issue. For us, we’ve found communicating with clients early and often and figuring it out then makes a lot more sense than waiting.”
While firms say they usually stick with the client they signed up first, that isn’t always the case. Last year, for instance, Ballard Partners asked Miami-Dade County for a waiver to continue representing Uber, which has flouted local taxi regulations. County commissioners refused to approve a waiver (prompting one attorney for Ballard Partners to grumble, according to the Miami Herald, about the differing treatment Miami-Dade has given “his majesty” Ron Book.)
Ballard responded by dropping Miami-Dade, which had been paying the firm $50,000 annually, in favor of Uber, which paid it approximately $105,000 just during the first nine months of 2015.