Dick Gephardt's Spectacular Sellout
Gephardt has remained committed to the cause of infrastructure privatization, visiting Nevada's legislature in 2007, and at last year's Democratic National Convention joining bankers from Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase to advocate for the practice on a panel discussion. By then, however, Gephardt had a new day job. In June 2005 he joined DLA Piper, a large Washington lobbying firm, as a consultant. He would not lobby, he told the Washington Post at the time; he would just offer "strategic advice." His new boss had other ideas, however, telling the trade publication Influence a few days later, "Once he's able to, he'll lobby if that's something that might be useful." As it turned out, it would be indispensable, because on November 7, 2006, the Democrats recaptured Congress.
A few days later, DLA Piper welcomed "friends, clients, dignitaries," to a postelection briefing featuring Dick Armey and Dick Gephardt. Armey uttered an audible sigh as he began to speak, but Gephardt was upbeat, beginning his remarks with, "Let me get the smile off my face for a minute." He had reason to grin: the value of his services had just risen astronomically. Peabody Energy, for example, approached Gephardt in late 2006 about signing on to lobby for the company. As Frederick Palmer, Peabody's top in-house lobbyist, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch a year later, "I can meet with a lot of people, but I'm Fred Palmer. He's Dick Gephardt."
Initially, the Gephardt Group claimed to have standards about the types of clients it would represent. In April 2007, soon after the firm's first set of lobbying filings became public, Matthew Gephardt, a founding partner in his father's business, laid out the firm's philosophy: "We're really getting involved with companies that share our values--ones involved in good corporate citizenry, with taking care of their employees, taking care of the environment and their local area as well, investing back in the community."
By these standards, Peabody Energy, the world's largest private coal company and the firm's first registered client, was a bizarre choice. Palmer, a senior vice president with the company, had helped to run the Greening Earth Society, a defunct industry front-group specializing in climate change denial, famously adopting as its motto "CO2 is beneficial to humankind and all of nature." Describing their environmental record as "horrendous," Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign, told me in a recent interview that Peabody's "goal is to burn as much coal as possible."
In an apparent attempt to counter this reputation, Peabody and Gephardt signed on to pushes for "clean coal"--something many environmentalists consider an oxymoron at best. In July Gephardt served as keynote speaker for the Clean Coal Technology Conference in Hope, Arkansas. All the big industry players were there, but several environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, were denied invitations. One speaker complained about excessive environmental regulation, while Mike Ross, the Blue Dog representative now famous for giving the White House daily headaches on healthcare, dropped by to reassure with platitudes like "coal is part of the solution to America's energy problems."
Then there is Peabody's labor record. According to a July 2006 report prepared by Religious Leaders for Coalfield Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice, the company worked hard to strip its mines of unionized workers, with CEO Greg Boyce saying in 2005, "We have reduced the intensity of our unionization, and we would continue on that path." The Rev. Theodore Erickson, a veteran of several coal-country labor disputes, told me that Peabody has been "aggressively decimating its unions" since the 1990s by closing unionized mines and opening new facilities nearby as a minority stakeholder. "Once the mine is fully staffed with nonunion people," Erickson explained, "Peabody will buy the remainder...and the mine is forever nonunion." The Sierra Club has joined union organizers at several recent St. Louis shareholder meetings in joint protests over Peabody's environmental and labor policies. "They're vehemently antiunion," says Nilles.
In March, when Harper's reporter Ken Silverstein noted that Gephardt had signed up the US Chamber of Commerce as a client, a spokeswoman for the Gephardt Group claimed their work was "not by any means anti-labor" because they were not registered to lobby the issue for any of their customers. It's an academic distinction that Gephardt's firm recently repeated as its sole comment in response to a series of detailed questions from The Nation. However, the firm did note one new exception. In July, the National Association of Professional Employer Organizations (NAPEO) retained Gephardt's services to lobby labor, healthcare and tax issues, according to disclosure filings. Professional employer organizations (PEOs) are a $68 billion industry that provides outsourced human resource departments to their clients, which take care of health benefits, workers' compensation and payroll administration. For some small businesses, they provide a cheap and convenient service; but mostly, sources involved with the labor movement told me, PEOs are a buffer between employee and employer, with the PEOs assuming the legal role of employer for entire segments of a company's workforce. After decades spent working to deregulate state labor laws, PEOs are making a renewed attempt to do the same at the federal level, with Gephardt as front man. Flying mostly under the radar--unions have been slow to recognize the threat they represent--PEOs are in a perfect position to make an entry into the legislative process. Under the Bush administration, PEOs had an ally in the White House, and an NLRB ruling was overturned that had allowed employees working in the same office for different employers to organize as a single bargaining unit. According to David West, director of the Center for a Changing Workforce, it will take some time for the matter to come before the Obama administration's NLRB, and PEOs and similar industries are seeking to push their advantage in Congress. "It used to be that they had Republican lobbyists working on this stuff for them, but I think they've realized, particularly in this administration, that they've got to go a whole different way," says West.