Election Central

Fulcher: Otter’s loyalty to public in question, as four lobbyists run campaign

UPDATED, 1:40 p.m., noting Fulcher’s top campaign aide also worked as a lobbyist.

Sen. Russ Fulcher says Gov. Butch Otter’s reliance on lobbyists to operate his re-election campaign calls into question who he’d represent in a third term — ordinary Idahoans or “people with cash and connections.”

In a news release Wednesday, Fulcher notes that Otter has four lobbyists on his campaign staff. The release, sent by Campaign Manager China Gum, neglected to mention Gum has twice worked as a lobbyist and operates a political consulting firm, Inside Baseball Public Affairs.

The four lobbyists on Otter’s team are:

Campaign Manager Jayson Ronk, who took a leave of absence as vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry to run the campaign; Finance Director Martin Bilbao, a lobbyist last registered in 2010 who became account services manager for the troubled school broadband provider, Education Networks of America; Lincoln Smyser, whose 2014 clients included the scandal-plagued outgoing operator of Idaho’s private prison, Corrections Corporation of America; and Elli Brown, whose 2014 clients at Veritas Advisors included the Northwest Food Processors Association.

“The governor now has staffers from the state’s largest lobbying firms working on his re-election campaign,” Fulcher said. “These relationships give people reason to suspect their government of wrongdoing, even when nothing illicit is taking place. It makes people wonder whether the governor’s re-election is about advancing and empowering Idahoans, or advancing and empowering people with cash and connections.”

In reply to my inquiry Wednesday morning, Gum said Wednesday afternoon that she worked as a lobbyist in 2004 and 2005 and for a month in 2013.

Fulcher said the question is whether the connections will influence state contracts and legislation.

“Is it legal? Probably. Does it look really, really bad? I sure think so,” said Fulcher.

I asked Ronk for comment Wednesday morning and hadn’t heard back by early afternoon. If he replies, I’ll update this post.

Gum, Fulcher’s campaign manager, registered as a lobbyist for the nonprofit Idaho Freedom Foundation in August and September 2013. In 2004 and 2005 she lobbied for the Idaho State Independent Auto Dealers Association; at the time her name was China Veldhouse.

Of the IFF work, Gum said, “I led a team of researchers looking into Idaho’s statehood and ultimately resulted in a white paper on Idaho’s enabling act. My focus was on research and education, not lobbying.”

Of the work for the car dealers, she said,  “I worked to keep the dealers informed of tax and regulatory changes that affect them. I have never lobbied for a government contract or a company involved in any taxpayer scandals.

“When I finish this job, I will go back to being a mom. When the Otter staff finishes the governor’s race, they will firmly attach themselves to the government’s teat.”

The Fulcher news release follows:

Where is Gov. Otter’s Loyalty?
Otter for Idaho Adds 4th Lobbyist to Campaign Staff
 

“This is the status quo in downtown Boise.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

May 7, 2014

Boise, ID

Senator Russ Fulcher today said the hiring of yet another lobbyist to work on Gov. Butch Otter’s re-election campaign raises troubling questions about the influence of special interests on Idaho politics.

“The governor now has staffers from the state’s largest lobbying firms working on his re-election campaign. These relationships give people reason to suspect their government of wrongdoing, even when nothing illicit is taking place,” said Fulcher. “It makes people wonder whether the governor’s re-election is about advancing and empowering Idahoans, or advancing and empowering people with cash and connections.”

Lobbyists on the campaign staff represent companies that have contractual relationships with the state or have an interest in legislation expected to be considered in the 2015 legislative session.

“Is it legal? Probably. Does it look really, really bad? I sure think so,” said Fulcher.

Elli Brown, Otter’s latest lobbyist campaign staffer, most recently worked at Veritas Advisors, whose clients include the Idaho Chamber Alliance, which lobbied for an Obamacare insurance exchange and still wants Otter and the Legislature to pass a local option sales tax.

Jayson Ronk, Otter for Idaho Campaign Manager, took a leave of absence as Vice President of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, which supported the insurance exchange and is pushing for more government healthcare via Obamacare Medicaid expansion.

Lobbyist Lincoln Smyser was added to the re-election campaign after the 2014 legislative session. He recently lobbied for Corrections Corporation of America, which had a scandal-ridden contract to run Idaho’s private prison, and the Idaho Trucking Association, which pitched a plan to raise gas taxes last session.

Martin Bilbao, a former lobbyist for Education Networks of America, serves as the Finance Director for the Otter for Idaho campaign. ENA was awarded a contract after Governor Otter’s business partner and best friend bent procurement rules to guarantee a contract over rival bidder Syringa Networks.

“A governor should leave a clear separation between elections and the formation of public policy. The people who lobby state government shouldn’t be on a governor’s campaign staff,” said Fulcher.

Dan Popkey came to Idaho in 1984 to work as a police reporter. Since 1987, he has covered politics and has reported on 25 sessions of the Legislature. Dan has a bachelor's in political science from Santa Clara University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University. He was a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association and a Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. A former page in the U.S. House of Representatives, he graduated Capitol Page High School in 1976. In 2007, he led the Statesman’s coverage of the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news. In 2003, he won the Ted M. Natt First Amendment award from the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association for coverage of University Place, the University of Idaho’s troubled real estate development in Boise. Dan helped start the community reading project "Big Read." He has two children in college and lives on the Boise Bench with an old gray cat.

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