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The Nation

A Small-Town Lobbyist and Her Big Connection

January 28, 2006|Ken Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The lobbying firm of Grimes and Young Inc. is not on K Street, famous address of some of the nation's most influential lobbyists. In fact, Grimes and Young is about a 2 1/2 -hour drive from the halls of Congress, in politically remote Media, Pa. (pop. 5,469).

The firm has no office. It has no website. It has only one lobbyist -- Cecelia Grimes. And she's a real estate agent. Her resume shows no past experience working on Capitol Hill or for the federal government.

But Grimes and Young has emerged as a niche lobbying firm with access to one powerful member of Congress -- Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee.

It is not clear how a small-town real estate agent moved from selling bungalows in suburban eastern Pennsylvania to trading access and influence in the nation's capital.

But with a scandal looming over Congress since lobbyist Jack Abramoff agreed to cooperate in a federal influence peddling probe, congressional ties to lobbyists are coming under renewed scrutiny.

Grimes, 40, who calls herself a longtime family friend of Weldon's, represents firms from as far away as California with business involving one or both of Weldon's House committees. Her services typically command a $20,000 annual retainer.

Weldon has taken steps to help at least three lobby clients of Grimes and Young, records and interviews show. And the representative of another company said he was referred to Grimes by a Weldon aide who said Grimes would "help our cause."

The congressman declined to be interviewed and referred all questions to his lawyer, who denied that the aide had recommended Grimes or that Grimes received any special treatment from Weldon's office.

"She is one of hundreds, maybe thousands, of people to come into the office with ideas," said William B. Canfield. "Her ideas have to make sense before anyone would take her seriously."

It is not the first time the 10-term congressman has attracted controversy over unusually close ties to a lobbyist. In 2004, a report by The Times disclosed that Weldon's daughter landed about $1 million in lobbying contracts with foreign clients who were assisted by the congressman. A House Ethics Committee inquiry remains unfinished.

Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said she saw troubling similarities between the lobbying relationship Weldon had with his daughter and the one with his longtime friend.

"There is an appearance that Weldon may be using his office to benefit family or friends," said Sloan, a former federal prosecutor.

Since 2003, records show, Grimes has signed up at least eight corporate clients, four of which are located in Weldon's district. The companies are mostly small firms seeking federal defense and domestic security funding.

Grimes declined to answer written questions from The Times, e-mailed at her request.

In a brief telephone interview, however, she said clients heard about her firm through "word of mouth" and some picked her because they were unable to afford Beltway lobby shops.

She denied that her relationship to Weldon had benefited her business. Grimes said that despite a lack of Washington experience, she had lobbying skills. "It's all about networking and follow-up," she said. "My clients like my company, and that has nothing to do with Curt."

Canfield, former senior staff counsel for the Senate Ethics Committee, acknowledged that Weldon had known Grimes for "more than a decade." But he played down Weldon's ties to Grimes, whom he described as "a big-deal Realtor" and prominent figure in the congressman's district.

"I suppose she said something to him at some point," Canfield said when asked if Grimes had told Weldon she intended to become a lobbyist. "Maybe it registered ... maybe it didn't."

Several of the firms Grimes represents had close ties to Weldon before hiring her. Others, by virtue of being in Weldon's district or having made political contributions to his campaigns, were already acquainted with the congressman.

Anthony Mulligan, president of Advanced Ceramics Research Inc., a Tucson firm that retained Grimes, told The Times that she had done a great job lobbying the Arizona congressional delegation.

But Advanced Ceramics had other lobbyists on retainer at the same time, including a former staff aide to U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

How a little-known Pennsylvania lobbyist would significantly boost Advanced Ceramics' political influence in Arizona was not clear.

A representative from another company that has lobbied Weldon's office said a senior Weldon aide suggested the firm retain Grimes. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his company from retribution.

"He didn't flat out say to hire her," the official said, recalling the aide's advice. "But he said ... it would be good to have her on our side."

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