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Lobbyists Advise Katrina Relief

A Senate bill includes billions of dollars in projects for clients of 'experienced experts.'

October 10, 2005|Alan C. Miller and Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Lobbyists representing transportation, energy and other special interests dominated panels that advised Louisiana's U.S. senators crafting legislation to rebuild the storm-damaged Gulf Coast, records and interviews show.

The Louisiana Katrina Reconstruction Act -- introduced last month by Louisiana Sens. Mary L. Landrieu, a Democrat, and David Vitter, a Republican -- included billions of dollars' worth of business for clients of those lobbyists and a total price tag estimated as high as $250 billion.

One advisory panel member who discovered that most of his fellow panelists were lobbyists called the resulting legislation "a huge injustice" to the state.

"I was basically shocked," said Ivor van Heerden, director of a hurricane public health research center at Louisiana State University. "What do lobbyists know about a plan for the reconstruction and restoration of Louisiana?"

Van Heerden was the first participant of any of the senators' working groups to provide such a detailed and scathing account of the process and its outcome. He said he was shut out after he voiced his concerns.

The result, he said, was a lost opportunity "to come up with something innovative, something the people of Louisiana and the nation could really endorse."

Among the lobby-supported interests with a stake in the relief and recovery bill:

* Energy utilities. Entergy Corp. and Cleco Corp. lobbyists consulted with the senators' staffs. Five days before the bill was introduced, Cleco retained the lobbying services of Lynnel B. Ruckert, Vitter's former deputy campaign manager and the wife of his chief of staff.

In an unusual assist to private utilities, the recovery bill includes $2.5 billion to help Louisiana companies such as Entergy of New Orleans and Cleco of Pineville restore and rebuild their electricity systems and recover losses from sustained power outages.

* Supporters of a controversial industrial canal project serving the Port of New Orleans. Among those serving on advisory panels were two officials of Jones Walker, a New Orleans-based firm that lobbies in Washington for the canal project. One of those officials was Paul F. Cambon, an ex-aide to former House Speaker Bob Livingston (R-La.), whose Livingston Group also is a lobbyist for the canal.

The recovery bill asks Congress to give "priority consideration" to the Army Corps of Engineers project, which would build a lock along the canal at a cost of $748 million.

* Highway advocates. Among those on a transportation working group were lobbyists for highway projects seeking funds, including a lobbyist from a firm headed by former Sen. J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.).

In the bill, four Louisiana highways considered evacuation and energy supply routes would receive construction, maintenance and repair work worth $7 billion. At least two of those projects were represented by lobbyists on the working group.

The bill already has been widely criticized as excessive and opportunistic. Its price tag exceeds the high end of estimated costs of the storm and does not include the $60 billion in emergency aid already approved.

Landrieu and Vitter defend the bill as a necessary response to the region's devastation. The bill's supporters say that Louisiana is crucial to America's energy industry and that the state's ports handle 20% of all U.S. imports and exports each day.

"Key economic sectors took a big hit from the storm," said Landrieu spokesman Adam Sharp. "Standing up the region's economy will help stand up the American economy."

Sharp also said the recovery bill's final cost would be closer to $200 billion, not the estimated high of $250 billion.

Aides said the lobbyists were among those who made recommendations but did not draft the legislation. Lawmakers also consulted with local and state officials, and community and business leaders in the Gulf Coast region, the aides said.

"The lobbyists and the entities they represent tend to be among the most experienced experts available who have direct real-world knowledge of the situation," Sharp said. "They are advocating for a position and for a client, but usually from a vantage point of expertise that can be very beneficial to us."

Vitter's office did not return numerous calls seeking comment.

Johnston, the former senator whose clients include hard-hit New Orleans and Jefferson Parish, said the participation of lobbyists in the working groups was appropriate.

"There is no conflict of interest," said Johnston, a former Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman. "We represent areas that were impacted, and the needs of those areas need to be brought to the fore."

But the House's decision Friday to attach strings to $750 million in federal loans to cities racked by Hurricane Katrina suggested growing resistance to expensive reconstruction proposals.

Keith Ashdown of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington watchdog group, said lobbyists were trying to exploit the catastrophe.

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