WASHINGTON – Soon after he retired last year as one of the leading liberals in Congress, former Representative William D. Delahunt of Massachusetts started his own lobbying firm with an office on the 16th floor of a Boston skyscraper. One of his first clients was a small coastal town that has agreed to pay him $15,000 a month for help in developing a wind energy project.
Amid the revolving door of congressmen-turned-lobbyists, there is nothing particularly remarkable about Mr. Delahunt’s transition, except for one thing. While in Congress, he personally earmarked $1.7 million for the same energy project.
So today, his firm, the Delahunt Group, stands to collect $90,000 or more for six months of work from the town of Hull, on Massachusetts Bay, with 80 percent of it coming from the pot of money he created through a pair of Energy Department grants in his final term in office, records and interviews show.
Experts in federal earmarking – a practice of financing pet projects that has been forsaken by many members of Congress as a toxic symbol of political abuse – said they could not recall a case in which a former lawmaker stood to benefit so directly from an earmark he had authorized. Mr. Delahunt’s firm is seeking a review of the arrangement from the Energy Department.
Mr. Delahunt’s work for the town raises legal and ethical questions, mainly because of federal restrictions on the use of federal funds for lobbying, several legal experts said.
Beyond the town of Hull, Mr. Delahunt’s clients include at least three others who received millions of dollars in federal aid with his direct assistance while he was in Congress, records show.
Mr. Delahunt declined repeated requests for an interview last week. In a statement released through his office on Friday, he also declined to respond to specific questions about his work, but said: “I want to be clear – I have no federal lobbying relationship with any past or current client. I have not lobbied anyone in Washington since leaving Congress.
“Further, while in Congress, I had no conversations with anybody regarding any future consulting contract,” he said, “and I am extremely proud of our work and the assistance we were able to bring to many communities throughout our district.” Federal law prohibits former congressmen from lobbying some ex-colleagues for one year after leaving office.
Mr. Delahunt was a natural choice for the job, said Philip E. Lemnios, town manager for Hull, because he was familiar with the stalled project and did impressive work getting the seed money for it while in Congress. The town now hopes to get $60 million or more in federal, state and private funds for four offshore wind turbines that might someday power the entire town and serve as a model for other towns.
“Obviously he’s got connections into the federal government that we don’t have,” Mr. Lemnios said in an interview. “We’re hoping he can open doors at the federal level that we could never open.”
An affable New Englander known for close ties with Republicans as well as fellow Democrats, Mr. Delahunt, 70, has quickly established himself as a go-to lobbyist in the Boston-Washington corridor.
He has capitalized on relationships he developed with many Massachusetts groups in his 14 years representing one of the state’s most affluent districts, which includes Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard.
The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, for instance, paid the Delahunt Group at least $40,000 to lobby for approval of a casino. Mr. Delahunt had secured Congressional earmarks for the tribe totaling $400,000 in 2008 and 2009 for a substance abuse program and other projects, the records show.
The city of Quincy, Mass., meanwhile, brought on Mr. Delahunt last year to help deal with federal officials on a downtown redevelopment program. In 2008, Mr. Delahunt secured nearly $2.4 million in earmarks for the city on a separate tidal restoration project.
And a fishermen’s group on the elbow of Cape Cod hired Mr. Delahunt to navigate regulatory issues; he had helped the group get a low-interest, $500,000 federal loan in 2010, records show. The group, which thanked Mr. Delahunt, then a congressman, for his help getting the loan, used the money to renovate a historic coastal home as its headquarters.
“Bill was an ally of small boat fishermen in Massachusetts, absolutely,” said John Pappalardo, chief executive of the group, the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association.
After Mr. Delahunt left Congress, the fishermen’s group hired him “to get the lay of the land politically” about possible changes in federal and regional fishing policies, Mr. Pappalardo said. The group paid the Delahunt Group $14,000 last year for its work, according to lobbying records filed in Massachusetts.
“He was sort of like an emissary,” Mr. Pappalardo said in an interview.
With nearly 400 former members of Congress hired as lobbyists or corporate “consultants” in the last decade, it has become commonplace for ex-members to work for groups or industries that they had helped get financing while in office.
For example, former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, who is seeking the Republican nomination for president, has drawn criticism over possible conflicts stemming from his earmarks. After leaving the Senate, he was paid $65,000 in consulting fees from a lobbying shop that represented clients he had helped with earmarks.
Mr. Delahunt’s financial connections to the energy project are much more direct, however.
“That’s not something I’ve ever heard of,” Kenneth A. Gross, a Washington lawyer who specializes in political ethics issues, said when asked about a former congressman receiving fees from earmarks he appropriated.
Several issues could influence whether the unusual arrangement was considered illegal or unethical, Mr. Gross and other ethics lawyers said.
Questions include whether Mr. Delahunt knew that he might go work for the town at the time he requested the earmarks; whether federal funds were being used to “lobby” Congress in violation of federal restrictions; which federal officials Mr. Delahunt’s firm contacted as part of its work; and whether those contacts fell within the one-year “cooling off” period.
Barney Keller, communications director for the Club for Growth, an influential conservative group in Washington that tracks earmarks, said: “I cannot recall such an obvious example of a member of Congress allocating money that went directly into his own pocket. It speaks to why members of Congress shouldn’t be using earmarks.”
Mr. Delahunt, a former district attorney who was known in Congress for embracing liberal causes, also became known over his time in Washington for bringing home federal money. He was particularly active in 2009, ranking in the top fifth of all House members, with more than $46 million in earmarks, including the Hull and Mashpee tribe grants, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit research group in Washington.
On retiring in early 2011, he told home-state reporters that he was hesitant to go the typical route of lobbying. But within a few months he did just that, starting the Delahunt Group, where he serves as chairman. He brought in three top congressional aides to help lead it and set up four offices in Massachusetts and Washington, and joined with a national law firm and another lobbying shop as well.
“This is nowhere as stressful as being a congressman,” he told The Cape Cod Times last June as he showed off the firm’s new office on the cape.
But he rejected any suggestion that he was cashing in on his time in Congress. “To say that former members wouldn’t use the skill set they developed, particularly if they are passionate about the interests of their clients, I really think is wrong-headed,” he told the newspaper.
But concerns about possible financial conflicts have already slowed the Delahunt Group’s work on the wind energy project in Hull.
Executives at Mr. Delahunt’s firm have been working informally on the energy project for several months, attending meetings and offering guidance, and they are expected to meet with “key federal and state officials” and provide advice on securing grants for the project, according to a draft of the $15,000-a-month contract.
But the town and the Delahunt Group have delayed signing a formal contract for at least a few weeks. They want to first make certain that Energy Department officials have no concerns about Mr. Delahunt’s unusual dual roles in earmarking the money for the project and now getting paid as a consultant to work on it, according to Mr. Lemnios, the Hull town manager, and Mark Forest, the Delahunt Group’s executive director.
“So far, they don’t have an issue with it,” Mr. Lemnios said. “But it would be a natural thing for people to think there might be a conflict of interest, and if people do have questions about a conflict, we want to be able to address that.”
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