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Meet the Think Tank Scholars who are also Beltway Lobbyists

Why D.C.'s policy shops need to be transparent about who else is paying their scholars

In 2010, Ian Brzezinski joined the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank focused on foreign policy issues. The position, and a perch on Atlantic’s Strategic Advisory Group, seemed natural for someone with Brzezinski’s resume, which featured significant policy jobs at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. 

Of course, that kind of CV is a good fit for another type of Washington work, too. In March 2011, Brzezinski started up his own lobbying firm. That year, the Brzezinski Group reported two clients: Grupa LOTOS S.A., a Polish oil company, and Central Europe Energy Partners (CEEP), a nonprofit of which Grupa LOTOS is a member and founder.1 They paid him at least $101,000 to lobby the U.S. government on a Grupa LOTOS project to store petroleum in salt caverns in Poland. Since April 2012, Grupa LOTOS has paid Brzezinski an additional $24,000 a quarter--a total of $72,000--even though he hasn’t reported any direct lobbying contact with lawmakers.

The same month he started his lobbying firm, Brzezinski spoke at a conference in Poland co-sponsored by CEEP. On the agenda, he was listed as affiliated with the Atlantic Council. He discussed energy security and “the importance of salt caverns.” A summary on CEEP’s website reported that Brzezinski said the region should “follow the model of the USA and collect strategic [energy] reserves” and that salt caverns Grupa LOTOS wants to exploit were “perfectly suitable for storage of gas and oil.” And the following October, a month and a half after registering to lobby separately for Grupa LOTOS, Brzezinski spoke at a conference sponsored by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.2 “Poland can play a significant role in reshaping Europe’s energy map,” said the agenda. “The United States, too, has a strong interest regarding the future of Poland’s energy industry.” Appearing on the same panel was the CEO of Grupa LOTOS. The title of his talk: "Project Caverns: Establishing a Strategic Petroleum Reserve for Poland."

Washington lobbyists are required by law to disclose who they work for, how much they get paid and what issues they advocate for. But they’re not obliged to mention it when they do other work—like, say, appear as a policy expert at a think-tank event. Brzezinski’s Atlantic Council bio, for instance, says he “leads the Brzezinski Group, which provides strategic insight and advice to government and commercial clients,” but it doesn’t disclose that he’s a registered lobbyist or identify his clients. The Rice University conference agenda listed Brzezinski as a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council without mentioning that he was lobbying for the company that wanted to build the project—or that another panelist was paying him. (Reached by phone, Brzezinski said he was unavailable and referred questions to the Atlantic Council; the Council did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.)

Brzezinski’s role is hardly anomalous. We found at least 49 people who have simultaneously worked as lobbyists for outside entities while serving as top staff, directors or trustees of 20 of the 25 most influential think tanks in the United States, as ranked by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania

Take Clark Ervin of the Aspen Institute. A former Department of Homeland Security inspector general under George W. Bush, he later served as co-chairman of Barack Obama’s transition and, later, was a member of both Janet Napolitano’s Homeland Security Advisory Council and the Wartime Contracting Commission on Iraq and Afghanistan. On September 15, 2011, Ervin founded and became executive director of Aspen’s Homeland Security Group, where he “convenes policymakers and thought leaders in homeland security and counterterrorism with a view to helping shape the policy debate,” according to a bio on the website of his law firm.

At the start of 2012, Ervin began lobbying for Vanguard Integrity Professionals, a security software company that received about $850,000 in contracts with federal agencies in 2012. Vanguard paid Patton Boggs $310,000 last year for the services of Ervin and three other firm lobbyists. According to Steven Ringelberg, Vanguard’s chief operating officer, Ervin introduced Vanguard to potential government clients while his colleague at Patton Boggs lobbied in support of the Cybersecurity Act of 2012. (Ringelberg said the firm did not stand to gain financially if the bill had passed, which it didn’t; rather, he said, the company’s support was ideological and for the common good.) 

The campaign for the bill was intense. Advocates painted “frightening pictures of derailed trains and toxic clouds, closed airports and hospitals, even compromised nuclear power plants fouled by secret attacks on computer networks,” according to a Kansas City Star story. That frightening picture could only have been confirmed by Ervin’s scholarly program at Aspen, which released a statement – signed by Ervin and 17 others, mostly former government officials -- urging lawmakers to immediately take up the bill for debate, pointing to “the possibility of a devastating cyber-attack” if Congress didn’t act.

The statement did not mention that Ervin had a financial relationship with a security software firm also trying to push the bill forward in Congress. Likewise Ervin’s Aspen Institute bio identifies him as “a partner at the law firm Patton Boggs,” but doesn't specify that he does lobbying work, let alone that he aids firms who work in the sector that Ervin’s think-tank group studies.

Ervin said in an email it “should suffice for anyone who is curious…to know that I work at a law firm and which law firm, and then anyone who is curious as to the details can consult the firm's website.” Jim Spiegelman, a spokesman for the Aspen Institute, said members of the Homeland Security Group who signed the letter supporting the Cybersecurity Act were speaking for themselves, not the think tank, which relies on employees to self-report conflicts or potential conflicts. He said, Ervin did not disclose a conflict “because there wasn't one,” since the Homeland Security Group doesn’t speak for Aspen, and Ervin didn’t lobby on the bill. Ervin, Spiegelman added, was not even “certain that anyone at his firm has lobbied for Vanguard on cyber-security legislation.” 

The Center for American Progress (CAP) has also had registered lobbyists on its staff. CAP senior fellow Scott Lilly, whose beat includes national security issues, lobbied for Lockheed between 2005 and late-2011. (A 31-year Hill veteran, he’d joined the Center in 2004.) Lilly, who declined a request for a phone interview, sent a statement by email saying he had never discussed “Lockheed interests with CAP staff while serving as a lobbyist for Lockheed.” Lilly’s bio at the CAP website lists a long number of past political posts and accomplishments, but doesn’t say anything about him working as a lobbyist for Lockheed. 

Should it have? Lilly is a widely respected defense policy intellectual—and CAP, according to spokeswoman Andrea Purse, has consistently argued for reductions in defense spending and taken positions contrary to Lockheed’s interests. And yet awareness of the lobbying work could color even seemingly unrelated and politically unremarkable pronouncements. For instance, when Lilly, describing ties between the U.S. and Taiwan as “one of the more important bilateral relationships in the world,” said that Washington should deliver Taipei “weapons that are necessary…without apology” to China. (Taiwan has “defended its skies with Lockheed Martin products” for decades, according to the company website.) Or when he cited the role of Tomahawk missiles in knocking out Libya’s radar and missile-defense systems. (Lockheed works on the missile program.)

Yesterday, after being contacted in connection with this story, CAP President Neera Tanden told The New Republic that the organization had adopted a "no lobbyists" policy.

But in the Washington think-tank world, with its tradition of coziness with power, not many people seem to understand how these all-too-common relationships might merely create an appearance of something murky. Perhaps one reason for that is the long history of lobbyists serving on board of think-tanks, where they can corral donations and steer the organization in larger ways.

At the Brookings Institution—No. 1 on the University of Pennsylvania list —Kenneth Duberstein, former chief of staff to Ronald Regan, is on the board of trustees, entrusted to "safeguard the independence of the Institution’s work" while also running a multi-million dollar lobbying shop down the street. His clients include Goldman Sachs, Comcast, PepsiCo and General Motors. During his time on the board of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, between 2003 and 2009, David Metzner lobbied for a number of companies with major interests in China, including Exelon and Siemens Corp. At least four registered lobbyists also serve on the board of directors at the Atlantic Council, including Lisa Barry, a top in-house lobbyist for Chevron who previously served as a House staffer and deputy assistant Frank Kelly joined the board in 2003, the same year he launched the Deutsche Bank’s DC lobbying shop. And CAP has had Jose Villareal, a Washington lobbyist and consultant at Akin Gump who “provides strategic counseling on a range of legal and policy issues,” on its board.

Of course, nearly all think tanks have corporate funding—and some of them were expressly set up by industries. But when a policy organization with claims to more disinterested scholarship overlaps with lobbying, it raises questions. An ideological orientation is one thing; employment by specific businesses with an interest in policy outcomes is another.

The tricky thing about conflicts of interest is that they often don’t signify anything nefarious. There are plenty of perfectly legitimate reasons why someone at a think tank might support more trade with China, or remark on the effectiveness of a certain missile, or encourage the expansion of Poland’s petroleum-storage capacities. Undisclosed financial ties, though, unnecessarily call all of that into question. 

“Someone at a think tank might be smart and have good ideas, but if they’re a lobbyist, they’re not just a scholar, they have a financial investment,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “That’s a huge problem.”

One easy fix: Transparency. “If you have a situation like someone from the Tobacco Institute think tank also lobbying for a tobacco company, there’s not really a problem,” says Meredith McGehee, Policy Director at the Campaign Legal Center, a D.C. watchdog group that works on money in politics, disclosure, and government ethics. “Everyone knows what’s going on and can take that into account.”

But while the government can mandate transparency for the lobbying industry, it can’t tell putatively scholarly organizations what to do. McGhee says they should do so themselves and very clearly disclose when an on-staff lobbyist is working on issues or involved in events or reports that take positions favorable to his or her clients. 

“There are so many entities in Washington with millions or even billions of dollars at stake, and meanwhile there is a web of organizations – think tanks, lobbyists, advocacy groups and others – who all play a role in influencing policies,” McGehee says. “It’s a pretty sticky wicket. Big interests can bring their money to bear in sophisticated and creative ways. If you’re a lobbyist you’re essentially a paid spokesman. That’s a piece of information that the public and policymakers need to know.”

Ken Silverstein and Brooke Williams are fellows at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Silverstein is also a contributing editor to Harper’s and Williams is a correspondent for Investigative Newsource. Follow @reporterbrooke on Twitter.

  1. In its 2010 annual report, Grupa LOTOS discussed forming CEEP, which it said was engaging with think tanks in order to achieve its “prime objective.” It specifically mentioned the Atlantic Council and the Center for Strategic and International Studies as some of its target partners.

  2. When Brzezinski registered to lobby on behalf of CEEP, he disclosed that Grupa LOTOS either financed or controlled the activities of CEEP or had a direct interest in the outcome of the lobbying activity. He later terminated his registration to lobby for CEEP and signed up separately for Grupa LOTOS.