In the months after Rep. Brian Bilbray sponsored a Congressional cigar club—where politicians and their staffers have puffed and partied with lobbyists around D.C.—he introduced or lent his name to legislation that would benefit some of those lobbyists’ clients.
At least two of the lobbyists work for pharmaceutical and medical product companies, which are the fourth largest contributors to the re-election campaign for the North San Diego County Republican. Another is the in-house lobbyist for the National Rifle Association.
In one instance, Bilbray sponsored a bill that would eliminate a tax on medical devices. He introduced that bill five days after the cigar club held an exclusive, rooftop event at a building across the street from the Capitol in late June.
Bilbray’s spokesman wouldn’t say if the congressman or his senior staff attended that event or any other cigar club get-togethers, but Jeff Choudhry, who lobbies for a large medical device manufacturer and other interests, was a board member of the club at the time. Choudhry and other lobbyists did not return numerous calls about whether they attended the events.
“That’s all outside of official stuff,” Fritz Chaleff, Bilbray’s communication’s chief, said. “I certainly would love to be able to give you that kind of information, but I just don’t have it.”
The Watchdog Institute, an independent investigative reporting center based at San Diego State University, combed through lobbying reports, corporate financial records, legislative actions, campaign finance data and the personal financial disclosures of Bilbray and his staff in the weeks since the Huffington Post first reported that lobbyists had key roles in the House-sanctioned Staff Congressional Cigar Association, a possible violation of ethics rules.
The cigar association is one of 20 official Congressional Staff Organizations, which are meant to promote networking among congressional staff. Most cater to certain groups and interests, such as the Congressional Hispanic Staff Association, the Capitol Hill Bible Study Staff Association, the House Chiefs of Staff Association and the Congressional Golf Staff Association.
Chaleff said the congressman’s only involvement with the cigar association was sponsoring it last year. He said Bilbray intended to encourage networking among Democratic and Republican staffers.
Even though a member of Congress must sponsor these organizations, and the House ethics committee must approve events, basic details about their activities are not public.
None of the cigar club’s officers—including Bilbray’s senior policy advisor, Gary Kline—returned the Watchdog Institute’s phone calls or e-mails asking for the dates and locations of events.
Chaleff said cigar parties were “just kind of FYI events” for Bilbray in which someone would say, “‘hey, by the way, this is going on tonight if you want to stop by.’”
Asked whether he personally attended the rooftop party, Chaleff recalled being there. He said he did not, however, remember if Bilbray or Kline were at that soirée.
“We certainly don’t monitor the social lives of staff,” he said.
Chaleff said Bilbray declined to be interviewed for this story.
In July, Bilbray’s democratic challenger in the November election, Francine Busby, called for the Office of Congressional Ethics to investigate whether lobbyist involvement in the club violated ethics rules. A spokesman for the ethics office said it doesn’t confirm or deny the existence of any investigation.
Craig Holman, an expert in government ethics and lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonprofit government watchdog, said clubs like the cigar association “are supposed to be just members of Congress and congressional staff getting together when they want to discuss pertinent issues.”
“If Congressman Bilbray has turned it into a lobbying entity, that would be a very obvious and egregious violation of ethics rules,” Holman said.
There is nothing illegal, however, about Bilbray sponsoring bills that could benefit lobbyists’ clients. Experts say the key is transparency.
But unless Bilbray or his staff agree to talk about which events they attended, who was there and what was discussed, there is no way to know how lobbyists might have used cigar club parties as a venue to influence Bilbray’s actions on the House floor.
Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks money in federal politics, said lobbying is a multi-billion industry—that is growing—so it must be effective.
“If it didn’t work people wouldn’t do it,” he said. “If it didn’t work really well people wouldn’t spend incredible amounts of money to do it.”
He said it could be a lot harder for a member of Congress to say no to a lobbyist after they’ve had dinner and drinks.
“Politics is a very human arena,” he said. “Those types of relationships often can go a long way even if the result of those relationships isn’t necessarily aligning with the public interest.”
Public Citizen’s Holman was disturbed to hear that Bilbray and Kline, his senior policy advisor who is a cigar club officer, wouldn’t discuss the events.
“He is not living up to transparency,” Holman said. “You should be able to call the officer of the caucus and ask, and they should tell you—if they won’t tell you, they are covering something up.”
Connections between Bilbray, the lobbyists and their clients are not readily apparent.
So far, none of the lobbyists involved in the cigar group have reported giving money to Bilbray’s campaign, though disclosure reports showing donations made on or after July 1 are not yet publicly available.
Some of the lobbyists’ clients have Political Action Committees that have reported giving to Bilbray’s campaign. The NRA’s PAC, for instance, has given Bilbray $2,500 so far this election cycle, according to federal election data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics. Pharmaceutical companies that employ lobbyists involved in the cigar club also have donated to Bilbray through their PACs. From 2007 through 2008, Baxter Healthcare Corp. gave $2,000 and Eli Lilly and Co. gave $2,500.
The Watchdog Institute investigated the corporate clients of lobbyists the Huffington Post reported to be involved in the cigar club and found that Bilbray has sponsored and supported legislation that would benefit them.
On June 28, five days after the cigar club held a party across the street from the Capitol, Bilbray sponsored a bill to repeal the 2.3% tax on the sale of medical devices, which is to begin in 2013 as part of the new health care law. Choudhry is a lobbyist for Baxter Healthcare, a publicly traded company based in Illinois that specializes in medical devices and products.
In reports to shareholders, Baxter has stated that this tax is among the “most significant impacts” of the health care law to the company financially.
Choudhry is director of legislative affairs for the Nickles Group, a firm of Washington insiders headed by former Sen. Don Nickles. Nickles Group began lobbying for Baxter early this year, around the same time Choudhry joined the firm. So far, Nickles reports receiving $115,000 in lobbying fees from Baxter.
When Bilbray wrote a letter to the House Administration Committee requesting approval of the cigar club in February 2009, he listed Choudhry as one of two officers. At the time, Choudhry was a staffer to Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.)
Chaleff said Bilbray introduced this bill to prevent an increase in the cost of health care nationally and to preserve jobs. He said about 76,000 people are employed in the medical device manufacturing industry in California.
The bill, which has three co-sponsors, is pending in the House Committee on Appropriations.
In July of this year, Bilbray was one of 29 co-sponsors of a bill that would limit the liability of medical companies if a product has approval of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Rep. Phil Gingrey, (R-Ga.) who introduced the bill, employed a cigar club officer as his communications director until recently.
The issue of whether medical companies should be liable for FDA-approved products got nationwide attention in 2007 when actor Dennis Quaid sued Baxter alleging his newborn twins received 1,000 times the correct dose of a blood thinner because the labels on high and low doses of the drug were similar, a problem Baxter had acknowledged.
Baxter argued the lawsuit should be dismissed because the FDA had approved the drug and its labels. The court in Illinois, where Baxter is headquartered, dismissed the first case. Quaid filed another lawsuit in California this year.
Deborah Spak, spokeswoman for Baxter, said the company did not lobby or take a formal position on the legislation Bilbray co-sponsored.
Chaleff said Bilbray supported this bill because “the practice of defensive medicine and the ever-increasing costs of liability coverage to doctors put unnecessary costs into our nation’s health care system.”
The bill is pending in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Seat at the table
In May 2009, Bilbray was one of seven Republicans among 63 co-sponsors of a bill to give the pharmaceutical and medical device industry three seats on a 21-member board that would review the effectiveness of therapies to determine whether Medicare and perhaps private insurance companies would pay for them.
Steve Irizarry, who helped to plan cigar club events according to the Huffington Post, lobbies on behalf of six pharmaceutical companies. Some of his clients pushed for industry seats on the drug review board—exactly what the legislation Bilbray co-sponsored would provide.
One of Irizarry’s clients—Eli Lilly and Co.—was closely involved in the development of the bill, said Greg Kueterman, a company spokesman.
“It includes many of the protections that the company would be interested in as well as the industry,” he said. “It was shaped up the way that we liked it.”
Spak, spokeswoman for Baxter, said the company “interacted with members of Congress” on this bill “to help ensure that patients with rare diseases are protected and will continue to have access to therapy.”
Irizarry did not return phone calls or an e-mail seeking an interview.
Chaleff said Bilbray co-sponsored this bill because he “believes that bureaucrats should not be making health care decisions for American citizens.”
The bill is pending in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Chuck Cunningham, lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, also is involved in the cigar club, according to the Huffington Post. In the time since Bilbray sponsored the cigar club last year, he has lent his name to at least three bills that Cunningham specifically reported lobbying on, as well as other pro-gun legislation. The month before he sought approval of the cigar association, Bilbray co-sponsored two more bills that Cunningham lobbied on.
For instance, in October 2009, Bilbray was one of 18 co-sponsors of a bill that would loosen the law governing which former law enforcement officials can carry concealed weapons. Cunningham reported lobbying on this legislation, which would give retired officers of the Amtrak Police Department, Federal Reserve System, the executive branch, and the Armed Forces the right to carry concealed weapons. It also would give retired law enforcement officers the right to carry weapons in school zones.
The bill is pending in the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security.
“Congressman Bilbray has a long track record of supporting the 2nd Amendment,” Chaleff said.
Brooke Williams is assigned to cover the San Diego congressional delegation in Washington D.C. and can be reached at email@example.com or 202-615-3551.
This story aired Tuesday, Sept. 7, on KGTV and KPBS, and published in The San Diego Union-Tribune and The Huffington Post.