Commentary

The Podesta Group: Playing Both PMC Sides

While private military contractors are not exactly like the larger traditional, military industrial contractors that everyone knows about, i.e., Lockheed Martin. Northrop Grumman, et cetera, that is not to say they don’t have some things in common with their much larger corporate brethren.

Take lobbying, for example. It is well known that for lobbyists there is no such thing as partisanship. It is all about results and getting paid for them. As long as someone can deliver for a lobbyist’s client their ideology and political affiliation don’t matter. And in that regard PMC, like politics, makes for interesting bed fellows.

Consider, for example, the Podesta Group. It is just one of the myriad, albeit better connected than many, of DC-based lobbying firms. Or as its website phrases it, a “bipartisan government relations and public affairs firm with a reputation for employing creative strategies to achieve results.”

The group was founded in 1988 by brothers John and Tony Podesta. It represents U.S. corporations, as well as non-profits, associations and governments. In 2008, the firm reported nearly $16 million in lobbying income. In 2007, Chairman Tony Podesta was ranked by his peers as the third most influential lobbyist in Washington.

John Podesta is President and CEO of the liberal Center for American Progress. Prior to founding the Center in 2003 he served as White House Chief of Staff to President Clinton. He served in the president’s cabinet and as a principal on the National Security Council. Most recently, he served as co-chair of President Obama’s transition team.

The Podesta Group’s client list includes both the Professional Services Council and National Public Radio.

The Professional Services Council is the national trade association of the government professional and technical services industry. It is solely focused on preserving, improving, and expanding the federal government market for its members. PSC’s more than 330 member companies represent small, medium, and large businesses that provide federal agencies with services of all kinds, including information technology, engineering, logistics, facilities management, operations and maintenance, consulting, international development, scientific, social, environmental services, and more. Its member companies include many PMC heavyweights, both logistics and security, such as AECOM, Aegis Defence, CACI, DynCorp, L-3, MVM, PAE, Triple Canopy, and Xe Services (formerly Blackwater).

National Public Radio is, well, I don’t have to introduce NPR. But it is worth noting that NPR is very sympathetic to the Nation magazine’s Jeremy Scahill, perpetual PMC critic and bête noire. Scahill frequently appears on NPR’s Fresh Air. Indeed, search online for Scahill and NPR and you get about 11,000 hits.

So, the Podesta Group has the distinction of lobbying for both one of the largest private contractor associations, and a media network, whose coverage of PMC issues, as reflected by its choice of commentators on the subject, is about as balanced as Fox News. Talk about playing both sides!

I’ve got to say it’s not every lobbying shop that can simultaneously represent two such directly countervailing groups but the Podesta Group seems to do it nicely. Of course, given that Xe Services, a Professional Services Council member company, has been the subject of countless unbalanced articles, as well as one highly acclaimed, albeit deeply flawed, book, by Scahill one might think that the PSC is not getting good value for its money.

Of course, trying to put lipstick on a pig by using lobbyists is hardly new. Back in 2008 this post appeared on the Project on Government Oversight’s blog:

Offensive Defense Contractors

Politico’s story “Defense contractors buy lobbying muscle” highlights how defense contractors are hiring public relations experts and lobbyists to fight off the bad press and legislative oversight efforts that have stemmed from contracting scandals. A day doesn’t go by without an article on KBR, Blackwater, or the Air Force tanker deal. Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) even started the Smart Contracting Caucus, stating that he wanted to “make sure others who care about procurement have a forum to discuss and push for sound procurement policy.”

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist, but I’m gonna go out on a limb and state that Rep. Davis’ mark on contracting won’t end when he retires later this year. As Politico pointed out, David Marin, formerly the Republican Staff Director on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (i.e., Ranking Member Davis), is working at the Podesta Group, an influential lobbying shop serving many large defense contractors and the Professional Services Council (PSC). Can you hear the pro-contractor lobbying train coming?

PSC, known for educating Congress about federal contracts, is offering similar services to the public. Its pro-contractor spin on federal spending can be found at www.smartcontracting.org. OMG, what a coincidence—that’s the same name as Rep. Davis’ new caucus!

POGO was, of course, right about Davis. On November 17, 2008, Davis joined Deloitte Consulting in their Washington, D.C. office. That was six days before he resigned from Congress on November 24.

Dave Marin is still at the Podesta Group. His bio says that as the Majority Staff Director for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from 2005-2007, he oversaw some of the highest profile congressional investigations in recent years, including the performance of the departments of Defense and Homeland Security contractors.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.