WASHINGTON — Two years ago, when regional phone companies wanted Congress to make it easier for them to compete in the high-speed Internet market, they did what special interests usually do with billions of dollars at stake: They amassed an army of experienced lobbyists.
But one of the so-called Baby Bells didn't stop there. BellSouth also hired a pair of lobbyists distinguished by their family trees -- John Breaux Jr. and Chester T. "Chet" Lott Jr.
They are the sons of two of the most powerful men in America when it comes to telecommunications policy: Sen. John B. Breaux (D-La.) and then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). Both fathers are senior members of the Senate commerce committee and its communications subcommittee.
Soon, the sons and their firms began banking thousands of dollars a month in BellSouth consulting and lobbying fees. In Breaux Jr.'s case, the total now surpasses $280,000, and in Lott's, $160,000, records show.
The son of another heavy hitter on telecommunications, Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.), was already on the BellSouth payroll, working in community relations.
While their sons have been getting paid by BellSouth, Sen. Breaux and Rep. Tauzin have sponsored bills to loosen federal restrictions on Baby Bells that want to compete with cable companies in the high-speed Internet market. They didn't prevail on Capitol Hill, so the fathers are now pressing the Federal Communications Commission to lift those restrictions. Sen. Lott has not taken a position on the issue.
BellSouth's "hat trick" reflects an increasingly popular maneuver in the age-old game of influence-seeking in Washington. These days, when a corporation or interest group wants support from a key member of Congress, it often hires a member of the lawmaker's family.
An examination of lobbyist reports, financial disclosure forms, and dozens of other state and federal records reveals that at least 17 senators and 11 members of the House have family members who lobby or work as consultants on government relations, most in Washington and often for clients who rely on the related lawmakers' goodwill.
Perhaps the best-known example is Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle, whose wife, Linda, represents the aviation industry. She says she does not lobby the Senate. But her partners do, and her clients benefited from the airline bailout pushed by the Democratic leadership.
In addition, Sen. Daschle's daughter-in-law, Jill Gimmel Daschle, registered as a federal lobbyist in May. She had planned to lobby the Senate but decided against it on Friday, an aide to the senator said.
Others include Republican Ted Stevens of Alaska, powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate's minority whip. Virtually every major interest group in their states pays lobbying, legal or consulting fees to their relatives or relatives' firms.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's son Joshua is a lobbyist for technology firms; Hastert is active on technology issues. And California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer's son Doug works for a lobbying firm representing clients that have sought her help in Congress on tribal and airport issues.
Without exception, lawmakers contacted by the Los Angeles Times said they had not been influenced by their relatives' business relationships.
Richard Richards, a retired lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said, "I'd think members of Congress would be a little concerned when their kids lobby that there is an appearance of impropriety. If this trend continues, it is going to get pretty sticky."
Corporations, unions and other economic and political interests have always sought favors from members of Congress. But successive reforms have made it harder for individual favor-seekers to distinguish themselves in the eyes of elected officials through traditional campaign contributions alone.
Offering work to the relatives of important members of Congress, however, can send an unusually personal message. The practice is unregulated. It is barred by neither House nor Senate rules.
"It's not an exaggeration to say I get a call once a week with a question about a relative who's a lobbyist," said J. Randolph Evans, an attorney who advises the House Republican leadership on government ethics. By his count, about 70 relatives of U.S. lawmakers are lobbying at the federal or state level. "These numbers are probably on the low side," he said. He declined to add to the list compiled by The Times.
Some relatives, such as Linda Daschle, a former Federal Aviation Administration official, draw on years of experience in the subjects on which they lobby. But many appear to have no such expertise.
When BellSouth hired Chet Lott, for instance, it already had a stable of seasoned communications lobbyists. Lott was living in Kentucky, running a string of pizza franchises and playing polo, having earlier dabbled in country music.