Money, gifts and parties are among the tools employed by Washington, D.C., lobbyists looking to curry favor with a U.S. senator or members of Congress.
Some lobbyists, however, have an even stronger political asset: a bloodline.
According to a 2012 Washington Post investigation, 56 relatives of lawmakers were paid to influence Congress in the five years after the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was passed. The law aimed to reduce outside influences on Congress by, among other things, reducing the power of family members as lobbyists.
No Vermont politicians were named in the Post’s investigation. But three years later, in February 2015, Alicia Leahy Jackson became a lobbyist for the Motion Picture Association of America.
Jackson is the daughter of Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Senate’s most senior member. Leahy currently serves as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee, and could regain his chairmanship if his party retakes control of the Senate this November (and he wins his 2016 election bid against Pomfret Republican Scott Milne). Leahy also serves on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee.
Jackson has worked at the MPAA since August 2011, according to her LinkedIn profile. She began her career in the organization’s global communications unit before becoming director of Congressional Programs and Outreach last February.
While the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act — which was co-sponsored by Leahy — does not prohibit direct lobbying by children when it comes to House members, the practice is banned in the U.S. Senate. A child, however, may lobby other senators in the chamber.
Jackson declined an interview request through Chris Ortman, an MPAA spokesman.
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In a statement to VTDigger, Ortman said, “as a matter of policy, and consistent with Senate rules, Alicia does not, has not and will not lobby Sen. Leahy’s office, staff, or the Senate Judiciary Committee.”
In an interview Thursday, Leahy said his daughter has always followed the rules.
“She is an absolute straight arrow on anything to do with ethics,” Leahy said, adding, “I think she would quit before she would ever seek to influence me.”
While Jackson is prohibited from directly lobbying her father in the Senate chamber, Leahy said the time the two spend together outside of work is also policy free.
“We have a rule that when we can be together as a family, we talk about family things, and I enjoy that,” he said. “We value every second we have.”
Senate lobbying disclosure reports do not list which members lobbyists have met with, and instead refer vaguely to the congressional body or federal agency where the lobbying occurred.
So while Jackson’s disclosure reports filed in 2015 and 2016 do not list names, they show that she has directly lobbied the U.S. Senate on many issues, including several that are closely tied to her father.
Jackson’s lobbying ranges widely on topics important to the film industry, from intellectual property law to immigration.
Lobbying disclosure forms show Jackson lobbied on the Mobile Workforce State Income Tax Simplification Act of 2015. Leahy served as one of 44 co-sponsors. In early 2015, she worked to influence the nomination of an intellectual property enforcement coordinator, a position created by Leahy in a 2008 piece of legislation.
She has lobbied on behalf of a smattering of broad topics often addressed in the Senate Judiciary Committee, including cyber security, internet rules, copyright law, immigration and domestic drone regulations. She worked to influence policy around the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a domain-name group her father helps oversee.
In total, the MPAA has spent more than $3 million on lobbying since Jackson joined the organization’s lobbying team.
Craig Holman, a campaign finance and government ethics expert for Public Citizen, a watchdog organization, said current lobbying rules are too lenient and allow for inappropriate influence by family members in Congress.
“Special interests that have pending business before a member of Congress often look to throw money at the feet of a family member,” he said. “That way these lobbies can still use their connections — at arms length — to get access.”
Holman added that there is no real enforcement mechanism to stop inappropriate lobbying.
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“We rely on the integrity of the lobbyist to set up that firewall,” Holman said.
And he added, if a violation occurs, the penalty is a private or public letter of reprimand to a member of Congress.
Before Jackson was an MPAA lobbyist, she served in “global communications” at the organization between 2011 and 2015.
During Jackson’s time at MPAA, Leahy has received more than $400,000 in support from the entertainment industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Sen. Leahy’s top 20 contributors from that period include four of the six members of the MPAA – Time Warner ($30,000), Walt Disney Co. ($22,500), 21st Century Fox ($20,700) and Sony Corp. ($19,100).
Leahy’s office has been in close communication with entertainment executives, according to Sony emails made public by WikiLeaks in 2014.
In one email chain from February 2014, details are discussed about a fundraiser for Leahy that took place at the house of Bob Iger, the current CEO of Disney. Former senator and current MPAA CEO Chris Dodd was scheduled to attend that event.
A May 2014 email chain shows executives planning a phone call between Michael Lynton — the current CEO of Sony — and Leahy.
“I just spoke with Michael Lynton, and advised him of the nominating committee’s action today,” wrote internet entrepreneur Steve Case on May 14, 2014. “I also told him that three members of the committee wanted to speak with him at some point in the next couple weeks. So please proceed to set up calls with Senator Leahy [and others].”
A photo on the website of Washington Life Magazine shows Leahy, his wife Marcelle and Alicia at an MPAA party in April 2011.
Leahy’s close relationship with the movie industry has been well known for years, and is perhaps best exemplified in his cameo roles in Time Warner’s Batman movies.
The biggest pushback Leahy felt after introducing a pro-MPPA bill came in 2012 with the Protect IP Act. While Leahy defended its merits vigorously, it failed to pass after an unprecedented wave of online activism alleging it would censor too many websites if they were found to have inadvertently hosted copyrighted content.
Leahy rejected claims he pushed the legislation because he was beholden to the entertainment industry.
“I’m a movie buff and love going to movies, but that doesn’t mean I always agree with the MPAA,” he said.
He pointed to a number of times he has split with the MPAA, including his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Comcast-Time Warner merger. In another big break with the MPAA, Leahy has been a champion of net neutrality.
MPAA lobbies on EB-5
The MPAA has taken interest in a controversial program Leahy has promoted for many years: the EB-5 visa program.
The national EB-5 program allows immigrants to invest $500,000 in projects located in high-unemployment areas. If each investment creates 10 jobs, the investors are eligible for permanent U.S. residency.
The program has been around since 1993, and Leahy has led the charge for reauthorization five times, including in 2003 when he secured a five-year extension.
While the MPAA lobbied specifically on EB-5 issues over the period Jackson, Leahy’s daughter, worked in outreach and communications for the association, the MPAA has not specifically tried to influence Congress on EB-5 matters over the past two years in which she has served as a lobbyist.
Recently, MPAA lobbyists — including Jackson — have worked in the Senate on the broad topic of “immigration” as well as several other visa programs. Immigration issues are often taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee where her father is a former chair and leading Democrat on the committee.
Holman, the expert on government ethics, said that even if a family member of a congressperson is not a lobbyist, they can still be an asset for a special interest group while working for an organization in a different role.
“There can be lobbying activity even if someone is not a registered lobbyist,” Holman said. “In that case, nothing is disclosed.”
Hollywood studios began taking advantage of EB-5 money as early as 2009. There have been hundreds of investor petitions worth hundreds of millions of dollars that have been steered toward Hollywood movies.
A 2015 report from the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General found that the LA Films Regional Center was given preferential treatment on multiple occasions by Alejandro Mayorkas, the former director of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. (The report also found problems with Mayorkas’ oversight of centers in Las Vegas and on the Gulf Coast.)
The preferential treatment from Mayorkas — in which he exhorted employees overseeing Hollywood EB-5 projects to “get to yes” — included efforts to finance films produced by Sony Pictures and Time Warner — two members of the MPAA.
In early 2010, the LA Films Regional Center proposed a Time Warner project with 240 pending EB-5 petitions.
The IG report described a number of issues with the project:
“Time Warner had not committed to borrowing the money; the job creation estimates were not sourced; there was insufficient evidence that the Time Warner productions would result in more jobs; the jobs created would be intermittent, temporary, or seasonal; and some petitioners had problematic escrow agreements.”
While USCIS officials were preparing to deny the request, Mayorkas worked to usurp their power, creating and staffing a review board that directed the Hollywood petitions to be approved.
“This was in effect a de facto approval of the investor petitions as long as there were no national security issues and each investor could demonstrate having the necessary funds to invest,” the IG report reads.
Documents show a separate Sony project, which included 200 investor petitions, had troubling problems, too. Sony did not commit to spending the EB-5 funds, and there was no proof the money would be spent in an approved “Target Employment Area.”
On the Sony project, USCIS officials were again prepared to veto the project. But an email from Sony’s legal counsel promising to use the EB-5 investor funds quickly reversed that decision.
In both the Sony and Timer Warner cases, the report accused Mayorkas of giving “improper personal access” to Tom Rosenfeld, who runs the LA Film Center and was urging expedited approval of the EB-5 projects.
“One career EB-5 official told us staff were forced ‘to go above and beyond for Tom Rosenfeld,’ reflecting their belief that Rosenfeld was receiving preferential treatment,” the IG report reads.
Shortly after the LA Film Center was established, in 2009, Rosenfeld donated $4,800 to Leahy’s U.S. Senate campaign committee.
Mayorkas has been a key EB-5 ally to Leahy, including when he allowed the Vermont senator’s interpretation of the EB-5 job requirements to include out-of-state, indirect jobs. Leahy, in turn, has been a big supporter of Mayorkas.
In 2013, when Mayorkas was nominated to the post of deputy secretary of Homeland Security, Leahy rebuffed Republicans who pointed to the IG report on the LA Film Center as a troubling sign. In a statement at the time Leahy said, “this flawed investigation does not merit the delay of Director Mayorkas’ confirmation process.”
In the end, Mayorkas was confirmed to the post, a position he still holds.
Asked about the LA Film Center and Mayorkas’ advocacy on the Sony and Time Warner projects, Leahy said he did not recall the alleged malfeasance. He reiterated that he has been trying to reform the EB-5 program for years.
“What they were doing in LA, I have no idea,” he said.
In 2012, as the EB-5 program was set to expire, lobbying reports show the MPAA working on EB-5 issues in the Senate. A few months later, in September 2012, just days before the program was set to end, Leahy won congressional approval for a three-year reauthorization of the program.
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