By Carl Weiser
Enquirer Washington bureau
WASHINGTON - The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has spent $740,000 on Washington lobbyists, federal records show - and museum officials say it has been well worth it.
Set to open in 2004 on Cincinnati's riverfront, the museum and education center signed up Washington law firm Williams & Jensen to publicize it among Beltway bigwigs and to win federal money. The Freedom Center has received about $16 million so far from Congress, about a fifth of the total funds raised so far.
That's $21.62 in federal earmarks for every $1 spent in lobbying fees.
WASHINGTON - Cincinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center has paid $740,000 to Washington law firm Williams & Jensen for lobbying on its behalf in the past 4‡ years:|
What Congress did: Passed Network to Freedom Act, allowing up to $500,000 a year to link Underground Railroad sites.
What Congress did: Provided $2.75 million for Freedom Center.
What Congress did: Passed the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Act, allowing up to $16 million to be allotted for the Freedom Center. Provided $6 million for Freedom Center.
What Congress did: Provided $8 million for Freedom Center.
Payments: $160,000 in first six months of the year.
What Congress did: Spending bills not yet written but separate House and Senate versions provide about $6 million.
"I think it's been good value for our money," said John Pepper, the retired Procter & Gamble chairman who provided an $800,000 donation specifically for lobbying.
He considered the center's choice to be this: hire its own lobbyists or use William & Jensen, one of Washington's top lobbying houses.
Williams & Jensen's clients include the pharmaceutical industry, the nuclear energy industry and AOL Time Warner.
"I likened the Freedom Center to pretty much starting a whole new university. It's a whole new institution, not known before," Mr. Pepper said. "It became clear early on we would need to have a strong educational outreach effort in Washington."
The Freedom Center already has several powerful boosters in Washington. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee - often the very target of lobbyists because the committee writes the spending bills. Also on the committee is Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The House Appropriations Committee includes three Ohioans, including two "cardinals," who chair subcommittees that write spending bills.
Another champion for the center is Rep. Rob Portman, whose district includes the museum, and who serves as House Speaker Dennis Hastert's right-hand man.
"The more help you get, the better," said Mr. DeWine's spokesman, Mike Dawson.
It's impossible to say whether the center would have gotten its money without paying a lobbyist, he said.
Mr. Dawson said that's up to the Freedom Center, a sentiment Rep. Portman, a Terrace Park Republican, seconds.
Portman spokesman Jim Morrell said: "(Mr. Portman) has always worked hard for the Freedom Center and will continue to work hard for them regardless of whether they have Washington representation or who that representation might be."
Money paid yields returns
Without the lobbyists, Mr. Pepper said the center might not have been able to bring home as much money or reach officials within the administration.
"We're very satisfied with their work," Freedom Center President Edwin Rigaud said. He chose the firm in 1998 on the recommendation of Stanley Aronoff, Cincinnati lobbyist and former Ohio Senate president.
The lobbyists' main mission recently has been getting federal "earmarks" - lines added to a spending bill - providing money for the museum.
The $16 million hauled in for the Freedom Center thus far has been done at bargain rates, said Robert J. Martinez, who has led the lobbying effort at Williams & Jensen.
"Trying to get people to support museums in this day and age is hard. It's not defense and not homeland security, and those are the things that are hot in Washington," Mr. Martinez said.
He said the firm has billed the Freedom Center at what he called "bargain rates" because it's a nonprofit.
"If a lobbying firm was doing appropriations for General Dynamics and got them $16 million, they'd have made considerably more money than ($740,000)," he said.
For its $740,000, Mr. Martinez said the firm had brought witnesses in to testify on behalf of the Freedom Center at congressional hearings, helped write the legislation that gave the go-ahead for federal donations, "liaisoned" with the Congressional Black Caucus, monitored appropriations hearings and votes, and made sure key players got invited to the July groundbreaking, at which first lady Laura Bush spoke.
"It's difficult to get appropriations through unless someone from Washington is helping you out," he said. "It's a business."
The $110 million museum and education center has been raising money from donors big and small since it first was proposed in 1994. So far it has amassed $82 million, according to Ernest Britton, the Freedom Center's director of external affairs.
Donors not critical
No donors contacted by the Enquirer criticized the Freedom Center's lobbying, and most declined to comment.
"It sounds like a high figure," said Deborah Spradley, president of the Cincinnati chapter of The Links Inc. The black women's volunteer group donated $100,000 in 1999.
"Could they have done it themselves? I don't know. Without knowing what the lobbyists do, it may have been worth it," she said.
Some $1 million donors, including the Cinergy and KnowledgeWorks foundations, declined to comment. The Episcopal Diocese of Southern Ohio simply referred questions about the lobbying back to Mr. Rigaud at the Freedom Center.
The Freedom Center is not the only nonprofit to hire Washington lobbyists. The Cincinnati Museum Center hired a firm called Strategic Public Partners to lobby for them this year. But so far they've paid $20,000.
Other museums around the country also use lobbyists. The Museum of Science in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Cleveland Museum of Art all have lobbyists.
The City of Cincinnati uses one of Washington's top lobbying firms, Patton Boggs, as its lobbyist. City taxpayers pay about $120,000 a year for the firm, which has lobbied for earmarks, empowerment zone money and help for local airports.
For information, go online at www.freedomcenter.org (National Underground Railroad Freedom Center) and www.williamsandjensen.com (Williams and Jensen law firm).
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