e CommonSense: The Los Angeles Times Takes Another Look at Weldon

Saturday, January 28, 2006

The Los Angeles Times Takes Another Look at Weldon

From the Los Angeles Times

A Small-Town Lobbyist and Her Big Connection
By Ken SilversteinTimes Staff Writer
January 28, 2006

WASHINGTON — The lobbying firm of Grimes and Young Inc. is not on K Street, famous address of some of the nation's most influential lobbyists.

In fact, Grimes and Young is about a 2 1/2 -hour drive from the halls of Congress, in politically remote Media, Pa. (pop. 5,469).

The firm has no office. It has no website. It has only one lobbyist — Cecelia Grimes. And she's a real estate agent. Her resume shows no past experience working on Capitol Hill or for the federal government.

But Grimes and Young has emerged as a niche lobbying firm with access to one powerful member of Congress — Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.

It is not clear how a small-town real estate agent moved from selling bungalows in suburban eastern Pennsylvania to trading access and influence in the nation's capital.

But with a scandal looming over Congress since lobbyist Jack Abramoff agreed to cooperate in a federal influence peddling probe, congressional ties to lobbyists are coming under renewed scrutiny.

Grimes, 40, who calls herself a longtime family friend of Weldon's, represents firms from as far away as California with business involving one or both of Weldon's House committees. Her services typically command a $20,000 annual retainer.

Weldon has taken steps to help at least three lobby clients of Grimes and Young, records and interviews show. And the representative of another company said he was referred to Grimes by a Weldon aide who said Grimes would "help our cause."

The congressman declined to be interviewed and referred all questions to his lawyer, who denied that the aide had recommended Grimes or that Grimes received any special treatment from Weldon's office.

"She is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people to come into the office with ideas," said William B. Canfield. "Her ideas have to make sense before anyone would take her seriously."

It is not the first time the 10-term congressman has attracted controversy over unusually close ties to a lobbyist. In 2004, a report by The Times disclosed that Weldon's daughter landed about $1 million in lobbying contracts with foreign clients who were assisted by the congressman. A House Ethics Committee inquiry remains unfinished.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she saw troubling similarities between the lobbying relationship Weldon had with his daughter and the one with his longtime friend.

"There is an appearance that Weldon may be using his office to benefit family or friends," said Sloan, a former federal prosecutor.

Since 2003, records show, Grimes has signed up at least eight corporate clients, four of which are located in Weldon's district. The companies are mostly small firms seeking federal defense and domestic security funding.

Grimes declined to answer written questions from The Times, e-mailed at her request.

In a brief telephone interview, however, she said clients heard about her firm through "word of mouth" and some picked her because they were unable to afford Beltway lobby shops.

She denied that her relationship to Weldon had benefited her business. Grimes said that despite a lack of Washington experience, she had lobbying skills. "It's all about networking and follow-up," she said. "My clients like my company, and that has nothing to do with Curt."

Canfield, former senior staff counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee, acknowledged that Weldon had known Grimes for "more than a decade." But he played down Weldon's ties to Grimes, whom he described as "a big-deal Realtor" and prominent figure in the congressman's district."

I suppose she said something to him at some point," Canfield said when asked if Grimes had told Weldon she intended to become a lobbyist. "Maybe it registered … maybe it didn't."

Several of the firms Grimes represents had close ties to Weldon before hiring her. Others, by virtue of being in Weldon's district or having made political contributions to his campaigns, were already acquainted with the congressman.

Anthony Mulligan, president of Advanced Ceramics Research Inc., a Tucson firm that retained Grimes, told The Times that she had done a great job lobbying the Arizona congressional delegation.

But Advanced Ceramics had other lobbyists on retainer at the same time, including a former staff aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

How a little-known Pennsylvania lobbyist would significantly boost Advanced Ceramics' political influence in Arizona was not clear.

A representative from another company that has lobbied Weldon's office said a senior Weldon aide suggested the firm retain Grimes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his company from retribution."

He didn't flat out say to hire her," the official said, recalling the aide's advice. "But he said … it would be good to have her on our side."

The company did not retain Grimes because "the situation didn't feel right," the firm's representative said.

Canfield said neither Weldon nor his aides had ever recommended that any company hire Grimes or any other lobbyist.

Congressional watchdog groups said it appeared that some companies retained Grimes not only for future access to Weldon but also to say thank you for the congressman's past support."

The only thing that she seems to be bring to the table is her relationship with Weldon," Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group, said when told of Grimes' work as a lobbyist.

"If I were looking to hire a lobbyist, I'd want someone with experience…. There's a big difference between selling houses and selling legislation to the House."

Grimes studied computer science at Beaver College — now Arcadia University — in Glenside, Pa., from 1983 to 1985, according to a resume posted on her real estate website. She received a bachelor's degree from Neumann College in Pennsylvania, the resume says.

She obtained her real estate license in 1989, state records show, and her website describes her as a "consistent multi-million-dollar producer." She has received multiple real estate honors, the website says.

Grimes told The Times that she had known Weldon for about 15 years. "I coached one of his kids in junior high school," she said, declining to elaborate.

Weldon, 58, was first elected to Congress in 1986 and represents the mostly Republican suburbs southwest of Philadelphia — including Media, a borough that describes itself as "Everyone's Hometown."

In 2000, Grimes was listed as Weldon's real estate agent in the purchase of his $440,000 two-story home in nearby Glen Mills, documents show.

Grimes, who still works as a real estate agent, has been lobbying since March 2003, when she opened a firm initially called CC Nexus, now incorporated as Grimes and Young. Her partner is Cynthia Young, 28, a freshly minted lawyer. Young declined an interview request.

Young's husband, Robert J. Young, worked as a paid staff aide for four months on Weldon's 2004 reelection campaign. He also is the son of U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.).

Among the most recent clients signed by Grimes and Young is Oto Melara, a subsidiary of Italian defense firm Finmeccanica. On June 1, the company agreed to pay Grimes $20,000 annually to lobby the House and Senate.

Oto Melara announced plans to open a new plant in Weldon's district in 2004, around the time the congressman began pressing the Navy to buy the firm's deck guns to install on new combat ships. A rival's weapon already had been selected.

Last year, Weldon supported an amendment to the defense bill requiring the Navy to study his proposal to switch deck guns, putting weapons made by Grimes' client on the next-generation of Littoral Combat Ships.Weldon also has championed Oto Melara's parent firm, Finmeccanica.

Last year, Finmeccanica's helicopter unit joined forces with Lockheed Martin Corp. to score an upset bidding victory and land a $1.6-billion contract to build the new presidential helicopter.

The Italians beat out a bid from United Technologies Corp. for its American-designed Sikorsky VH-92 to serve as Marine One, the presidential helicopter.

According to Aviation Week & Space Technology, a defense industry trade publication, Weldon was a key backer of Finmeccanica's winning bid.

Oto Melara officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Advanced Ceramics Research has retained Grimes since September 2003 to seek defense funding from the House and the Office of Naval Research.

Mulligan, president of the Tucson company, said Grimes initially contacted him because one of her clients did business with his firm. Mulligan liked Grimes, he said, and hired her.

"We're always getting beat up by bigger [defense] firms that have a lot of generals on their payroll," he said, explaining his decision to hire Grimes and other lobbyists.

Mulligan said that he was unaware Grimes knew Weldon at the time and that he hired her because he "thought she was bright and had the ability to find things out." He said Grimes subsequently introduced him to Weldon, with whom he has met about half a dozen times.

Since August 2004, Mulligan and another Advanced Ceramics executive have donated $4,000 to Weldon's political coffers.

Some of that money was contributed at a fundraiser for Weldon that Grimes hosted at her home in Media. The event raised $8,050 for the congressman's 2004 reelection campaign, with two other Grimes and Young clients making donations, in addition to Advanced Ceramics.

Mulligan said Grimes lobbied about a dozen members of Congress, including Weldon, to help secure a $3-million contract in 2005. The ceramic tools project was the firm's first successful bid for funding in a defense appropriations bill.

While Advanced Ceramics was paying Grimes to lobby for that project, Weldon went to bat for another of the firm's products, unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs. The congressman twice invited Mulligan to appear before the House tactical air and land forces subcommittee, which Weldon chairs.

Weldon praised Mulligan publicly, congratulating him for his "outstanding testimony and outstanding products."

Advanced Ceramics has since won a combined $43.5 million in Navy contracts and congressional funding for its UAVs. About $5 million came from the Naval Air Systems Command, an agency overseen by Weldon's subcommittee.

Mulligan said Grimes never lobbied for the UAV program.

An earlier client for Grimes was FSI Energy Inc. of Bryn Mawr, Pa. The firm is developing an ambitious natural gas project linking gas fields in Russia to North and South Korea and Japan. The massive KoRus pipeline project is backed by Weldon.

The congressman was a leading advocate for the project before his real estate agent friend signed on to represent FSI in June 2003. Five months earlier, he and John Fetter, president of FSI, had promoted the project at an energy conference in Washington.

Fetter said he was aware that Grimes knew Weldon and that "she has worked with him and done a lot of liaison work for companies doing business with the government, trying to help them get things through the system."

He praised Grimes, saying she helped set up meetings for him in Washington. "I've paid people more than I paid Miss Grimes and got more out of her," he said. "She was able to set things up that were timely and productive."

Fetter said he hired Grimes at the recommendation of Frank Rapoport, a Washington lobbyist also retained by FSI.

Rapoport is a longtime political ally of Weldon's and a periodic contributor to the congressman's campaigns. Last year, the two traveled together to Moscow for the first U.S.-Russia Homeland Security Trade Mission.

Rapoport declined to say why he recommended Grimes to Fetter, citing attorney-client privilege.

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