Sunday, January 16, 2000

Powerful lobbyists join forces, raise profile

The Associated Press

        COLUMBUS — The Greek revival Statehouse in downtown Columbus is an imposing edifice, but some say lobbyists Paul Tipps and Neil Clark cast an equally long shadow from their offices less than a block away.

        Longtime state government power players, Mr. Tipps and Mr. Clark are never far from the biggest issues before the Legislature, and often not far from controversy.

        “These guys have proven themselves to be almost indefatigable in terms of following things and being able to respond quickly,” said William Batchelder, who served in the Ohio House for 30 years and is now a state appellate court judge in Akron.

        The Statehouse honoraria scandal of the 1990s stemmed in part from payments made to several lawmakers at a dinner party at Mr. Tipps' home.

        Two months ago, Republican E.J. Thomas, the House Finance chairman and a 15-year veteran of the Legislature, resigned his seat early after it was revealed he'd been offered the directorship of Mr. Clark's and Mr. Tipps' new public relations firm, the Groundswell Group.

        With a long list of overlapping clients, Mr. Clark and Mr. Tipps for years ran nominally separate lobbying firms out of the same set of offices. Their aura was enhanced by the enigmatic fashion in which the receptionist answered the phone: “36-hundred” — the phone number's last four digits.

        Late last year, the two colleagues finally merged, creating State Street Consultants, based in Columbus with offices in Cincinnati and Cleveland. Callers now hear the name of the company.

        The 15 lobbyists now grouped under SSC include former Ohio House members Patrick Sweeney, a Cleveland Democrat, and Gordon Scherer, a Cincinnati Republican whose clients include the Cincinnati Bengals.

        Despite their high profile, Mr. Clark, a Republican and former Senate finance director, and Mr. Tipps, a Democrat and former state party chairman, wave away suggestions about their perceived political strength.

        “There are 132 people in the General Assembly and each one is their own boss and own leader,” said Mr. Clark. “We in no shape or form can control those individuals. Ever.”

        Both men migrated to Columbus from other parts of the state and rose to prominence in the 1980s under the tutelage of powerful lawmakers.

        Mr. Clark, 46, raised in Cleveland, was senior financial analyst and later director of operations for the Ohio Senate under former Senate President Stanley Aronoff, a 36-year veteran of the Statehouse who served eight years as Senate president.

        In addition to his lobbying business, Mr. Clark runs Midwest Communications & Media, an advertising company.

        Mr. Tipps, 63, a native of Cincinnati, was chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Party in the 1970s and then chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party and a close ally of the late House Speaker Vern Riffe.

        Statehouse observers and fellow lobbyists are divided about the two men's ultimate influence, but no one disputes the strengths they bring to the table.

        “Just look at who they represent — it's not widows and orphans,” Mr. Batchelder said.

        Their clients include AK Steel Corp., the American Cancer Society, AT&T, Bank One, Columbia Gas of Ohio, Cincinnati and the Cincinnati schools, and NatCity Investments.

        “These guys are the best at what they do because of their credibility,” said Steve Stivers, regional director of government relations for Bank One's east region. “The reason we have them is we think they're the best.”

        John Mahaney, president of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants and a dean of Statehouse lobbyists, said a lot of Mr. Tipps' and Mr. Clark's influence is based on reputation.

        “Paul was a Democratic state chairman. He was exceedingly close to Vern Riffe; as his friend he had a lot of influence,” Mr. Mahaney said. “Clark as much as anyone was responsible for Republicans in the Senate getting ahold of districts drawn by Democrats. The guys had a terrific power base to begin with.”

        Mr. Aronoff, now a political consultant and lobbyist in Cincinnati, said the two are a good team, “but they're not the only game in town.” With the merger, they also may have clients with conflicting interests who must take their business elsewhere, Mr. Aronoff suggested.

        Mr. Tipps said the two men have a lot of credibility with lawmakers, “and I'm sure that some of that comes from the fact we raise a lot of money and give a lot of money.”

        Through their consulting companies, the two contributed $143,640 for statewide and legislative candidates for 1997-1998, according to an analysis by Ohio Citizen Action.

        Former House Democrat Daniel Troy of Willowick attributes his electoral defeat two years ago to $1.5 million that Mr. Clark helped to raise.

        “I never had any use for Clark,” said Mr. Troy, now a Lake County Commissioner. “I find him to be very arrogant, I find him to be threatening.”

        Mr. Clark and Mr. Tipps wouldn't discuss earnings, although Mr. Clark said the range is between $3,000 and $10,000 per client per month.

        If measured only by their resilience in the face of scandal, Mr. Clark and Mr. Tipps won't disappear under the shadow of term limits anytime soon.

        In the case of the E.J. Thomas controversy, Senate Democrats cried foul over Mr. Thomas' job offer with Groundswell, a joint venture between State Street Consultants and Cincinnati-based advertising firm Northlich Stolley LaWarre.

        Democrats claimed a conflict of interest because the firm might eventually bid for anti-smoking advertising campaigns as part of the state's $10.1 billion tobacco settlement.

        Mr. Thomas, overseeing the money's allocation as finance chairman, was cleared of any ethical violations by the inspector general. But to end any controversy, he said, he resigned..

        The honoraria scandal of the 1990s ultimately led to convictions against Mr. Aronoff, Mr. Riffe and state Sen. Gene Watts, R-Columbus. Neither Mr. Clark nor Mr. Tipps was indicted. Such honoraria payments are now illegal.

        As term limits take effect in Ohio and elsewhere, the fear has been that well-connected lobbyists such as Mr. Clark and Mr. Tipps will further increase their influence as inexperienced legislators arrive at the Statehouse.

        The reality is mixed, said Rich Jones, director of legislative programs for the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. Mr. Jones has interviewed legislators, legislative aides and lobbyists in several states for an NCSL term limits research project.

        “In term-limited states, lobbyists have to work very hard to find out who new members are, to develop trust and a relationship,” said Mr. Jones.

        Meanwhile, “new members approach lobbyists fairly warily. They're kind of holding them more at arm's length,” he said.


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