San Diego Four years ago, the City of San Diego hired Republican Patrick Garahan, a Coronado-based lobbyist, to persuade the United States Congress to pay for a multimillion-dollar pedestrian bridge.
The bridge would link downtown's Petco Park with a parking garage across Harbor Drive and the railroad tracks.
Garahan was ultimately paid more than $100,000. He says he obtained $1 million in federal funds, a sum much smaller than he had hoped for but which he notes was better than nothing.
The elaborate suspension bridge, featuring an elevator and designed by the firm of noted Massachusetts architect Moshe Safdie, has leapt in cost over the five years it has been in the planning stages.
By current estimates, about $16.4 million will be required to build the structure and surrounding improvements if ground is broken, as expected, late this year or early next. The project is scheduled for completion in 2008.
In addition to Garahan's $1 million, $3.8 million of additional federal funds obtained in part by Patton Boggs, another lobbying firm retained by the City, will go into the project.
Four million dollars will be contributed by a partnership, led by Padres owner John Moores, that is building a condominium project near the bridge. The balance will be paid from funds raised through local property taxes by the City's Redevelopment Agency.
The City has long argued that the bridge is essential to the economic success of downtown's ballpark district, on which local taxpayers have already lavished more than $300 million in subsidies and public improvements.
The story of how taxpayers paid Garahan to lobby Congress for the construction money, in the form of a budget earmark, is not an unusual one.
Recently the New York Times reported that the number of local government projects paid for with earmarks had grown from 4219 valued at a total of $27.7 billion in 1998 to 12,852 worth $64 billion last year. Critics say the earmarking process is innately corrupt in that it forces local taxpayers to hire lobbyists to obtain federal funds that are public money in the first place.
Cases such as that of the downtown pedestrian bridge, they say, illustrate the pork barrel nature of the earmark process, resulting in wasteful, over-the-top projects far more expensive than they need to be.
Five weeks ago Garahan sat down to describe in detail how he brought his long experience as a lobbyist, onetime transportation secretary of Vermont, and high-ranking member of the Republican Party to bear on obtaining the earmarked funds for the bridge.
"In terms of these kind of earmarks, they come in two ways for transportation. There's an annual transportation appropriations bill, and then there's this big bill, of course, every six years, this so-called surface transportation reauthorization bill. In those bills there's thousands of earmarks.
"Really, in the last 25 years it's become kind of part of the deal, where every member of Congress and every senator's entitled to them. Congressmen, they get about $15 million apiece, except for the ones who are more powerful -- on the right committee. Then in the Senate they get a little more than that.
"I'm a professional engineer, a civil engineer, and I've been involved in this business since, really since '80, on the public side. Originally from New York, but I moved to Vermont in 1973, and I lived there till 2001.
"I was [Vermont's] secretary of transportation, which is in charge of the highway department, the DMV. We had ten state airports. In that role, I got involved with the [congressional lobbying] every year.
"We ended up getting about as much as California gets some years because our senators, unlike the California senators, tend to stay there a long time, and they get to be very powerful.
"One of our senators was on the Appropriations Committee, and the other one was the chairman at one point of what they call the Environment and Public Works Committee. So we had two very powerful guys, and we were able to get all kinds of things: covered bridges, and railroads, and highways, and bridges.
"So I became very familiar with that, and in the process, I spent some time in Washington doing my job and got to know a number of the staff people. Most of the work I've done in the last decade has had to do with this nexus of transportation and politics and funding.
"I was the chairman of the state Republican Party. And a member of the Republican National Committee from '85 to '87, and I was involved in a number of other political things.
"[At the 1996 GOP convention in San Diego] I was in charge of all the computer network, the telephone, radios, all housing assignments, kind of all the logistical stuff, all the support stuff, and, you know, the physical running of this thing.
"I went back to Vermont for five years. But I spent a winter here, and I said, 'Boy, it's pretty nice here.' I really fell in love with San Diego.
"I lived in Coronado. I rented a house, and I sent my kids to school there. We had a kid in high school, and all that stuff. Not to mention how expensive it was, but fortunately we were able to get in before it went completely nuts.
"I heard about this [pedestrian-bridge project], and I went to see [then deputy city manager] Bruce [Herring], who I had worked with before, and I told them this is what I had done, and I gave him the background that I had.
"What I tried to do was to get -- I mean, I got a million dollars, but I think, you know, through different scenarios we could have gotten more.
"The problem was that it was a high priority for some people, but there were other things that were equally high priority. In the end there's only a certain amount of money you can get, and if the powers that be aren't willing to say, 'We really want more for this and less [for] that...' So I think we got as much as we could. I guess it's pretty close to being built. It's designed.
"I knew the system. So what I did, first of all, was to go and meet with -- there's a staff person who works for Senator Boxer and Senator Feinstein. I'm trying to remember [his name] because there's two of them, or three of them. You can only take this job for about a year because 95 percent of the people that ask for stuff don't get it, so you're not a very popular person. It's really hard work. Some young 25-, 30-year-old staffer.
"You go in to see them and you introduce yourself and you explain why you're there, you're representing the City of San Diego. I mean, you don't just knock on the door; you get in touch with them. And the first thing is to explain the need for the project and also point out the kind of support you have from the mayor and the council: this is a priority.
"And explain why it's an unusual project: because it came up at the end, it's tied to the opening of the road, and you can't open this big investment all the way from Balboa Park to San Diego Bay because of this thing, and explain why it wasn't in the budget. And this is at the time that they were building the [ball]park too, you know -- the park overrun.
"So you go in, and you meet with them at ten o'clock in the morning. The staff people are the ones that really do this. In this case, I had a friend of mine who was from Vermont who was the chief of staff for Senator Leahy, who knew the chief of staff for Senator Feinstein. So, I forget whether I talked to her on the phone, but he said, 'This is a good guy, why don't you talk to him.' Because, you know, she's got a million people.
"Well, you go in the office, and in these other states, like Vermont, it's nice and quiet. But in California, it's like, there's 30, 40 million people and there's only two senators. What's happened nowadays is that people organize these things, the e-mails and the phones, you know. The phones ring, ring.
"So, anyway, I figure I either met with her or I talked with her, and I met with Susan Davis's person here, a guy named Don Hammer, at the time. I met with her. I went to her office. You know, congress people are a little easier to see because they only represent a small amount; there's 53 of them in California.
"It's very important that you bring everybody up to speed, because it's not only that you want people to help you, you don't want them to hurt you. They never heard about it. It's a matter of respect. So you make sure that all the key staff people are involved, the two senators and the congress people.
"We actually talked with Congressman Filner as well, even though it's not his district. He used to be a member of the council, as you know, and he's also on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. So I went to see him.
"There's this kind of small-p political process where you make sure you know everybody knows what you're doing so if it pops up...because these things are easy to kill. It's a very complicated situation.
"I really like representing public entities and having projects that are easily explainable and defensible. We had this picture, this video. There was this video of people crawling underneath and over the trains at noontime, old people. And so, we're saying this is what the alternative is.
"So anyway, then it just becomes a matter of understanding, continuously keeping in touch, answering questions, trying to keep it on the top of the list, getting feedback. Mostly on the phone. I would go to Washington periodically, once a month or so. But I wasn't one, and never have been one to, you know, I'm not a winer or diner or -- in fact, I don't think I've ever had any social stuff with any of these people. It's all strictly business. That's the way I like it.
"There's really two kinds of lobbyists, the institutional -- well, there's more than two kinds. The people who are in Washington, who're there all the time, they generally come out of either former congressmen or former staffers or former White House people -- there's Tommy Boggs, whose dad was majority leader of the House.
"These people, they become personal friends with these guys. They go out to dinner with them. They do fund-raisers for them. That's the big deal. The way the system works is, it's all perfectly legal, but these guys, you know, they get the calls -- you can give $5000 or $1000, and you're expected to write the checks. It's all part of the whole way the system works.
"And those are the big guys; those are the guys who make $5 million a year, and they have these big offices.
"Then there's a number of people like me -- and there's law firms and all this stuff -- but then there's other independent people like me who work on specific issues. I really focused on working for people who I knew or states that I knew. Right now I'm working for a private company, but it's not for earmarks. It's a San Diego company that's developed a product that has to do with transportation. I'm trying to introduce that product into some government stuff and some private-sector stuff. But on the earmark work that I've done, and the policy stuff, I've always worked for public-sector clients, and I've worked independently.
"I don't do any wining. The Duke Cunningham stuff, that's a whole different deal. Those are the guys who get these private earmarks. I don't know how to do that, and I'm not interested in that. The only area I really know about is transportation, and that's got to do with policy, and it's got to do with earmarks.
"Earmarks have become institutionalized. Every transportation appropriations bill has earmarks, every reauthorization bill has earmarks, and so there's an entitlement, almost, to the members of the committee and the members of the Senate on the right committees. When they reauthorize, everybody gets something, and so, if you're interested, someone's going to get it, and it might as well be you.
"In San Diego County they have an annual process where they put together a request. It goes through this SANDAG staff and board, it gets shipped out to Senator Feinstein, Senator Boxer, all the congress people from San Diego County, a group of people -- I was never among this group -- the mayor, at least when Murphy was mayor.
"I met with him early on to talk about this project and, frankly, to explain to him what I was trying to do, which was to get even more. And, like I said, it became conflicts, and so we took what we could.
"See, the problem is, suppose objectively, all projects should be in the city of San Diego. You could probably argue that.
"But that doesn't work politically because the County wants something. And Carlsbad wants something. It isn't one for each, because there aren't that many projects. It becomes a complicated kind of political matter for SANDAG to work it out.
"So there are ways. If you can show that what you're getting is above and beyond, that's really what I was trying to do. First of all, to get what we were entitled to, and that wasn't easy either. But we got that. What I was trying to do was to get even more.
"I was trying to get three or four million.... I started to work with Patton Boggs. They had other -- I mean, it's complicated. What you want is ten times more than you're going to get. I spent a whole lot of time because there's a special pot of money, a small amount of money for rail crossings, separate from everything else, that's discretionary by the Federal Railroad Administration. So I went to see them to see if we could do that, and, you know, they couldn't find a way.
"The Federal Railroad Administration, they have $100 million for every railroad crossing in the United States, and it's designed for high-accident ones. You know, our argument was, 'This is unusual where you've got this.' You drive around here; it's very dangerous. These people get killed. Did you see that? Another one yesterday. Well, half of them are suicides. But did you see that kid yesterday, I think it was? It was in the paper.
"I know where the programs are. I know who administers them, I know the rules, and I know the process, which is kind of vague. Opaque, I guess. I mean, if you've never been involved in it.
"And there are key staff people who kind of really run it, and you've got to be able to either know them or have access to them. And there's a million people who want to see them, so everybody doesn't get to see them.
"In the Appropriations Committee, there are ten subcommittees. The chairmen of those committees in the House are known as the College of Cardinals. So if you're that subcommittee chairman, you're on the committee -- especially if you're a senior member of the committee -- then you get a little more every year.
"And the same thing in the Senate, although in the Senate it's different because there's the Environment and Public Works Committee that does highways, then you've got the Commerce Committee that does railroads, and the Banking and Urban Affairs Committee that does [mass] transit.
"You have the preauthorizing committee and then you have the Appropriations Committee. And, once again, if you're on the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee or you're a senior member of the Appropriations Committee... It really comes down to the fact that, in the end, there's a bunch of political compromises that have to be made. If you happen to be in the room on that conference committee between the House and the Senate, generally your projects survive. And if you're not in the room, they might not.
"So, it's a matter of having the right person, and that's as much luck as anything else.
"A number of the lobbyists in Washington, the ones that are permanent, are the former staff members of these subcommittees who really know the process. They also know the guys or the women that were there, because they used to work for them. You've got to wait a year, but, you know.
"It really comes down to -- I mean, these bills are this big, and no one ever reads them before they pass, so if you happen to be the people who write them, especially on the reauthorization bills... There's one copy of it. Everybody voted, and they went home. They kind of knew what was in it for them, but they didn't know the whole thing. And nobody -- that was before they put them on the Internet. Now at least it's on the Internet, and you can see it and look at it. It's a very -- you know, the old story about you don't want to see how sausage is made, or how laws are made.
"[An earmark is] an item where it says under a certain category, it describes the project, a little line or two. I forget how this one was described. I don't know if you've seen the paperwork, but it's some kind of pedestrian bridge at the crossing of Eighth and Harbor Drive in the city of San Diego. You describe what it is, there's hundreds of thousands of them.
"You know how a bill becomes a law: it passes the House, passes the Senate, and then they're different, and you get a conference committee. The staff works out all the details, and then ultimately there's a meeting where they say, 'Okay. This is what we're going to compromise, this is what you're going to compromise.' Everybody says, 'Okay.'
"Ninety-nine percent of the time it's done by the staff. The two staffs try to work everything out. They go back and forth. They say, 'this is what they want. Can we agree to that?' And then they have a meeting, most of the time.
"This is how people get bringing home the bacon for a district. This is totally different from the kind of stuff that Duke was doing. I don't know about that. That was private stuff. A lot of that stuff wasn't earmarked. He was convincing people, I guess, from what I read in the paper, within the Defense Department, to give contracts to these people.
"Because he was a powerful guy, he was able to convince the people [in government] to give people these contracts, and in turn, they paid him cash. I don't know anything about that.
"I don't think I've ever even bought lunch. Most of them don't want anything. [Ex-congressmen] can go on the floor, they can go in the gym, you know, it's a whole different deal. I've always liked to argue the merits, and I think this one had a hell of a lot of merits.
"There were some technical issues. They want to know how it's going to be built, all kinds of stuff. So, it's just a matter of, like I say, it's a fine line between being obnoxious. You call, and you send e-mails whenever something happens. Or, if the mayor is going to go there anyway, you give him a little thing and he goes, and when he meets with Senator Feinstein about something else, he mentions this.
"So there was this whole process that went on continuously anyway, and I was plugged into that. We'd have periodic meetings. And then when we got involved with Patton Boggs, we'd have meetings to make sure everybody was coordinated and talking to the right people.
"Begging is one way to characterize it. I would characterize it as you're asking for what you should be entitled to.
"Look at Robert Byrd. Every building in West Virginia's named after him. He's been there for 58 years, chairman of the Appropriations Committee -- he used to be chairman, now he's the ranking guy. He gets what he wants. They moved the FBI to West Virginia! He's got tens of thousands of jobs up there.
"In the history of California, the senators haven't tended to stay long. These other states like West Virginia, he's been in there since '54 or something, '58 or something. Patrick Leahy in Vermont's been there since '74, you know?
"So, in the Senate it's how long you've been there. It's the most important thing. In the House they've changed a little bit, especially on the Republican side. It's more, they take in account seniority, but it's also they get elected by the caucus, so it's a little less.
"But even so, it comes down to who's on the committees. In general, I think it's money well spent. It's almost like -- I don't know -- like, if you don't have lobbyists, and other people do, they're going to get the money. I don't [know] what they paid Patton Boggs; I didn't get paid that. You know, a few thousand dollars a month."