The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government

  • By Brody Mullins and Luke Mullins
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 624 pp.

Do lobbyists deserve their bad rap? It’s complicated.

The Wolves of K Street: The Secret History of How Big Money Took Over Big Government

The Wolves of K Street is a book about big-time lobbyists behaving badly. Some break the law, steal from clients, or steal from their own partners. They all get rich and arrogant on the tab of wealthy corporate clients. They throw their weight around with all the trappings: big cigars, yachts, Porsches, mansions, private jets. And they almost all come to bad ends: sickness, suicide, prison, bankruptcy, or messy divorces.

In the book’s opening, an ultra-rich lobbyist, about to be exposed as a crook, sitting by the golf course at his ultra-exclusive country club with a cigar and an expensive bottle of wine, quietly puts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger, setting the stage for a morality play with comeuppances galore.

So far, so good. Pretty clear picture. But once I’d finished it, this book left me feeling conflicted and a bit put off.

Living and working in Washington, DC, for many decades, I don’t presume every lobbyist to be a villain, even those representing big business or causes I dislike. (Full disclosure: As a lawyer, I have registered as a federal lobbyist more than once along the way, as do over 12,000 professionals each year.) The Wolves of K Street, however, seems to have its own slant, seen both in its splashy title and in the book’s offhanded, repeated use of the pejorative term “influence peddling” as a blanket description for Washington advocacy.

Still, for all my misgivings, I found it a guilty pleasure and a delicious read, detailed and finely researched. The characterizations and backroom stories are well crafted and as salacious as promised. The authors, brothers Brody Mullins and Luke Mullins, investigative reporters for the Wall Street Journal and Washingtonian, respectively, who’ve covered DC lobbying for years, tell a heck of a yarn.

Weighing in at 508 pages, plus endnotes, the book’s narrative spans five decades. But instead of dry history, it tells its tale primarily through the messy human stories of men at three cutting-edge lobby firms: Tommy Boggs (Patton Boggs), starting in the 1970s; then Charlie Black, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, and Lee Atwater (Black Manafort), starting in the 1980s; and finally, Tony Podesta (Podesta Group), also starting in the 1980s.

As the authors put it, “Together, members of these three lobbying houses helped to tilt the playing field against ordinary Americans in all sorts of ways” — the narrative arc in a nutshell.

First, Boggs, scion of a political family and son of Congressman Hale Boggs (D-La.), who served as House majority whip and leader from 1961 until his death in a mysterious plane crash in Alaska in 1973. Tommy gave up the chance for a political career in the 1970s, when consumerism was at its height, to turn instead to lobbying. He combined deep old-school political connections — “influence peddling” in the traditional sense of trading on personal contacts — with techniques borrowed from the consumer movement. But he used his skills to represent business at a time when business was losing most political battles in Washington.

Boggs soon started scoring wins. He defeated the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in a 1977 Senate reauthorization battle, branding it the “National Nanny” and forcing the agency to abandon several major rule-makings. This success convinced scores of businesses to hire DC agents. A few years later, Boggs used his deep knowledge of House procedures to help kill key provisions of the Clinton Administration’s healthcare legislation.

With success came money. By 1992, Patton Boggs employed 180 staffers and represented some 1,500 clients. By the time it was purchased by Squire Sanders in 2014 (to form Squire Patton Boggs), it was one of the world’s largest lobbying firms, with 1,600 lawyers, 280 in the District alone.

With money came finery for Boggs: a Rolls-Royce convertible, Cuban cigars, waterskiing in the Gulf of Mexico, expensive wines, multiple properties and mansions, a 425-acre marshland preserve for duck hunting, and “boozy weekends” for political friends. Cynical? Absolutely! We’re told how, during consideration of the 1986 Tax Reform Act, when a senator asked Boggs what would happen if Congress eliminated certain tax deductions popular with his clients, he said simply:

“I think it would be great, because then I could spend the next twenty-five years trying to put them all back in.”

Boggs died a short time after losing control of his firm to an outside group, a fact that bothered him greatly. But he’d set a pattern. With skilled advocates like him, big business could now carry a big stick in Washington. According to the authors, if Democrats wanted to build a “legacy of achievement,” they had to leave behind the “New Deal tradition” and “step into the future of corporate capitalism.”

Next come Manafort, Black, Atwater, and Stone. Long steeped in conservative activism, they brought both an ideological zealotry and a sharp-edged tactical approach to lobbying. When Stone and Manafort seized control of the Young Republicans organization in the 1970s, as the authors put it, they became “black-hearted patriots of the conservative cause” who used “scorched-earth tactics to exterminate any whiff of moderate influence inside the group.”

They launched Black Manafort in 1980, at the dawn of the Ronald Reagan presidency, styling themselves as political consultants as much as lobbyists, able to draw on a wide range of contacts in the conservative world. But more, they offered clients the ability to influence government from the outside, using grassroots lobbying, public relations, third-party allies, image-making, and speeches to create public demand — or at least the appearance of it — to win specific fights on behalf of corporate clients.

In the authors’ telling, Manafort emerges as the chief villain. Beyond other things, he went all in on representing foreign governments — the more authoritarian, the better. His client list would grow to include the governments of Zaire, Nigeria, Kenya, Philippines, Peru, and Somalia, generating some $2.75 million in fees in 1990 alone. In 1985, Manafort brought the Angolan anti-communist insurgent Jonas Savimbi in from the battlefield, dressed him in a suit, and guided him on a “whirlwind tour” of Washington and New York officialdom, telling him, “If you want to be a president, you have to look like a president.”

And, of course, Manafort became deeply engaged in Ukraine, but that is a story in itself.

Soon, Manafort, like the others, grew wealthy. He “amassed the sort of fortune that’s typically associated with French monarchs or Wall Street kingpins,” the authors tell us. He spent his money with abandon. Among other things, he bought an $18,500 python-skin jacket, a $15,000 ostrich-skin jacket (complete with a $9,500 matching vest), three Land Rovers, a $21,000 watch from Rodeo Drive, and a Hamptons estate that included a 10-bedroom house, waterfall, putting green, tennis court, and a swimming pool.

But then things started going south. In 1995, after Black Manafort was purchased by another firm, an audit revealed that Manafort was generating far less income than promised from his foreign clients and had been misappropriating money from the company. So, they fired him.

When it finally came, Manafort’s ultimate fall from grace would make headlines: his targeting by Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; his indictment and conviction for fraud and money laundering; his two years in prison; and his subsequent pardon by President Donald Trump in December 2020. As come-uppances go, his was pretty large.         

Finally, we have Tony Podesta, who got his start as a liberal activist, volunteering first for the quixotic 1968 Eugene McCarthy (D-Mn.) presidential campaign before being recruited by People for the American Way (PAW), the group founded by TV producer Norman Lear to combat the emerging power of the Christian Right. Later, Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Ma.), impressed by Podesta’s work at PAW, would ask him to mount an eventually successful public campaign against the 1987 Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork.

With this track record, Podesta soon discovered he could do well representing business. As the authors tell it, the logic was simple. “It’s hard to find nonprofit clients who pay you,” explained Podesta. Among his long list of corporate clients, he would represent Google in preventing a 2010 antitrust suit by the FTC. Later, he’d take to representing well-paying foreign interests, including the governments of Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and South Sudan, plus the state-owned Russian bank Sberbank.

He, too, got very rich. We’re told that, at its peak, the Podesta Group earned annual revenues topping $40 million and employed over 50 lobbyists. GQ magazine named Podesta one of the “50 Most Powerful People in DC.” He spent his money on an apartment in Venice, a house on Virginia’s Lake Barcroft, a mansion in the District, a massive art collection, and luxuries galore. And don’t worry: We’re not spared ample details about his divorce from wife Heather.

We also learn how things went seriously off-track for Podesta after he was approached by Manafort to partner on representing political interests in Ukraine. At a key point, Podesta made the mistake of reporting the work under the Federal Lobby Disclosure Act rather than under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (since it involved a foreign government, a fact left vague on the paperwork). This legal violation, in turn, led to Podesta being dragged into the Mueller investigation, though charges against him were never brought.

Podesta would lose his firm in 2017 due to fallout from the Mueller situation, as well as from financial mismanagement. The resulting monetary stress forced him to sell off many of his properties, including parts of his prized art collection.

The Wolves of K Street rounds out its cast with Genentech lobbyist Evan Morris and his one-time partner in mischief Jim Courtevich, but these are sad stories that I’ll leave for your own reading.

I love gossip as much as the next person, and I bristle at the idea of America being made subservient to corporate greed. But in the end, The Wolves of K Street left me in a bind. I appreciated the solid writing, the drama, and the richly detailed descriptions of political and legislative intrigue. But the book’s slant left me cold. What are we to think? That all lobbyists are crooked? Or at least the ones representing “big corporations” or foreign governments? Or is it just the ones convicted of crimes or whose names appear in the gossip columns? Or maybe it’s just the super-wealthy ones?

I kept feeling that I was being sold a stereotype, taking the worst excesses of the lobbying class and making it the whole brand. The authors could’ve made their story stronger by not painting with such a broad brush.

Still, as told by the Mullins, these people — Boggs, Podesta, and even Manafort on a rare honest day — were good at their craft, aggressive and competitive, innovative and creative. They lived grandly, greedy and reckless, but not so differently from tycoons in other fields who survive to see their gold turn to rust. On this score, top-tier lobbyists are not role models. They’re simply flawed human beings, the kind who make the best subjects for good writing.

Ken Ackerman is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC. His books include The Gold Ring: Jay Gould, Jim Fisk, and Black Friday 1869 and Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.

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