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Friday, May 31, 2013 DAILY PRESS

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PORT AUTHORITY

Officials: Board was in dark on federal lobbyist
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Virginia Port Authority officials said Thursday that the agency’s governing board was unaware until last week of a relationship the agency has had with a federal lobbyist. A contract between Federal Advocates Inc. and a port authority contractor to lobby on the state agency’s behalf was first reported by the Daily Press after a board of commissioners meeting Tuesday in which board chairman William Fralin and spokesman Joe Harris indicated the agency didn’t hire a lobbyist. Their assertions were contradicted by Federal Advocates, a Northern Virginia-based lobbying shop that lists VPA as a client on its website and describes specific work done on behalf of the agency. On Thursday, Harris and Fralin sought to clarify their statement about Federal Advocates’ work. Fralin said commissioners had only recently learned about Federal Advocates, and during a closed-door portion of their meeting Tuesday started a study process to see whether the arrangement violated a prohibition on Virginia agencies hiring lobbyists. “We’re getting advice from the attorney general on that,” Fralin said. “There’s a deal where we’re not supposed to lobby, so the questions are, ‘Were they (lobbying)? (If not) is that a little close to the line? And do we want to continue doing that?” Meredith McGehee, a public interest lobbyist in Washington who also works for a campaign finance watchdog group, said for all intents the VPA has a lobbyist. “Clearly the impression here in Washington is that the Virginia Port Authority is being represented,” McGehee said Tuesday. She said federal rules allow an agency such as the port authority to hire a lobbyist provided it doesn’t use federal dollars to pay for that activity. But state rules may not. Fralin said the VPA board members, who with one exception were brought on by Gov. Bob McDonnell in 2011, are interested in reforming the lobbying relationship, if it turns out to be improper. “This is obviously a new board, and we’re not interested in doing stuff that’s not clearly fine,” he said, adding

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JOE FUDGE/DAILY PRESS FILE PHOTO

Jeffrey Wassmer, from left, Virginia Port Authority vice chairman; William Fralin Jr., VPA chairman; and Rodney W. Oliver, VPA deputy executive director and CFO, attend a Virginia Port Authority board meeting in March.

that if the VPA needs to have a voice in Washington, the proper course would be to ask the General Assembly for authority to hire a lobbying firm. Harris said board members knew certain details about Federal Advocates work last week but they did not know the extent of the relationship until the Daily Press report was published. “I’m not sure the board found out all the details of this until the story,” Harris said. Federal Advocates’ website says it represents the VPA through longtime port authority contractor Moffatt & Nichol, a Los Angeles firm that specializes in maritime planning and design. Representatives for the lobbyist and the contractor did not respond to messages left this week seeking interviews about the nature of the lobbying arrangement and when it began. But an interview with a former VPA official and lobbying disclosure forms filed with Congress indicate Federal Advocates President Sante Esposito has done work for the port authority going back at least as far as 2003. “I remember going up two or three times to Washington, said Bob Merhige, the port authority’s former deputy executive director, who left the agency in 2004. Merhige said that during those trips officials met with Esposito, who at the time worked at the firm E. Del

Smith and Co. but later founded Federal Advocates. “I remember meeting with the lobbyists,” Merhige said. “We were the ones who went to talk to them, and I don’t even think Moffatt & Nichol went with us every time.” He said the meetings specifically involved a push to secure federal dollars for the construction of the Heartland Corridor, a rail project that allowed Norfolk Southern trains to double-stack its shipping containers on routes to Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. The earliest of a series of E. Del Smith and Co. disclosure forms with the word “Heartland” flagged in their titles describes lobbying done during the second half of 2003. The most recent Federal Advocates disclosure regarding work performed for Moffatt & Nichol was filed in April. A state open-government advocate also criticized the language commissioners use to describe the nature of their closed-door discussions about the lobbying arrangement. The blurb on the meeting agenda says they were hearing “a status report on The Port of Virginia’s Congressional Efforts and Legislative Strategy.” “I do not think there’s an exemption that would apply to a legislative update behind closed doors,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Coalition on Open Government. “They need to be more precise.”

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