FLORIDA’S POLITICAL MAFIA, Part 2: Lobbyists, the Ultimate Swamp Creatures

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FOLLOW THE MONEY TO TRUMP’S FLORIDA GANG: BALLARD PARTNERS

A crew of lobbyists, lawyers and public relations people—hacks and flacks—are the component parts of what we’re calling the Florida Mafia. Its official name is Ballard Partners. The firm’s creator, Brian Ballard, is a veteran Florida lobbyist and fundraiser. That’s a redundancy, of course. Corporate lobbyists and those who lobby for foreign interests collect money from clients who want something from the government, and dispense much of that money to the politicians who can deliver what they want. Their lucrative lobbying fees come off the top.


Top-dollar lobbyist Brian Ballard found Trump’s Washington far more profitable than his state and local work back home in Florida. Photo from FloridaPolitics.com
 

Ballard, who is known for his prodigious fundraising, chaired Trump Victory, the big-dollar 2016 committee that raised millions for Trump’s campaign. Ballard was the vice chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, a financial vice chair of the Republican National Committee, and a bundler of contributions of $835,000 for Trump’s joint fundraising committee in this election cycle. His family had reported making $124,000 in personal contributions to the RNC. If you’re following the money, one of the first places to look is at Ballard.

Following Trump’s inauguration, Ballard moved to Washington D.C., taking with him at least thirty of his Florida-based staff. The firm quickly signed up more than sixty clients. By 2019, it had at least 109 clients, paying fees of $20 million. The firm is also the sixth largest lobbyist for foreign interests that seek to influence the Trump government.

Clients, all signed up, include Kosovo, Turkey, Nigeria, Amazon, Google, Big Pharma heavyweights AstraZeneca and Bayer, General Motors, Qatar, Dish Network, Uber, whiskey makers, gambling casinos, and even a Florida-based medical marijuana company. Reycip Erdogan, Turkey’s ruler, signed a $125,000-a-month contract.

Ballard Partners wouldn’t exist outside of Florida, where it remains the top lobbying firm, were it not for Donald Trump.

I was [Trump’s] lobbyist and anyone who knows me and knows my business knows that,” Ballard told “Politico” last year. “We’re not part of the crew that says, ‘Hey, let’s go to town and take advantage of the new administration.’ We came here with a different path, by clients who wanted us to come to D.C. I kind of came reluctantly and I get the criticism. It’s fair criticism. But we have a job to do.

Read this quickly and he almost sounds like an outsider eager to drain the swamp. It’s the same message Trump sold to voters. Examine the statement more closely: I came to Washington reluctantly . . . I came by popular demand . . . I’m not part of that crew taking advantage of the new administration . . . I have a job to do.

What does any of that mean? For a man who “reluctantly” came to Washington, he got out of the starting gate quicker than anyone. Trump was sworn in on January 20, 2017. By February 10, Ballard had announced the opening of his Washington offices. Those offices are bigger and have a far larger staff than his offices in Tallahassee, Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale. So much for the reluctant lobbyist. Of course, he’s not “taking advantage of the new administration”; he’s an important part of it, a middleman between Trump and the money Ballard’s clients pay to play.

‘WE HAVE A JOB TO DO’

From the Ballard Partners website: “Ballard Partners’ highly skilled team helps its clients navigate the political terrains of Washington, D.C., Florida and Tel Aviv.”

Ballard’s clients expect to receive very high returns on their investments in Donald Trump. To that end, the firm has lobbied some two dozen federal agencies, including the Treasury Department, the White House, Mike Pence’s office, Congress and even the Department of Justice. One client, the GEO Group, a private prison operator, secured Trump’s first immigrant-detention contract.

Ballard is indeed a skilled “navigator.” He’s well-paid for the service. But the firm’s lobbying fees are only the ante: the price of admission Ballard’s clients put up just to get into the game. In his role as a major Trump money man, his job is to chart a course through the swamp that Trump once promised to drain. Consider all the indictments and convictions of Trump’s closest associates, all the former coal lobbyists, pharmaceutical lobbyists, tobacco lobbyists, Wall Street bankers, and all the other swamp creatures that Trump has appointed to run the government. From that, we know that “draining the swamp” was a slick slogan but never a promise he intended to keep.

Ballard is one of those swamp creatures. His job is to steer the millions of dollars he raises from foreign and domestic interests—his own clients—to their final destination. Can you guess where that final destination is? I know you can.

In Trump World, the trip from corporate treasuries, sovereign wealth funds, from wherever the cash is stashed, to the money’s final destination isn’t tough to figure out. It’s always headed towards Donald Trump’s political or personal accounts. Trump supporters might respond, What’s different from any other administration? And that’s a fair question.

First, though, let’s admit that those who ask the question have put aside his promise to drain the swamp. It’s fair to say, as with all presidential campaigns, that many millions of those dollars raised from people who want something from the Trump administration go into the campaign itself. Pollsters and focus group managers are hired to help craft the words that  work.[1] We didn’t get the catchphrase “hard-working taxpayers” by accident. Or the slogan used to dirty up Obamacare, “Don’t let the government stand between you and your doctor.” Or, closer to home, another the powerful slogan of another Ballard client, Florida’s former governor, Rick Scott: “Let’s get to work.” That was usually accompanied by visuals of Scott moving down an alleyway, putting on his jacket and looking like he was gonna kick some butt. The message: politicians talk, Scott gets it done. He’s now senator Rick Scott, another key Ballard client.

As with “Drain the swamp,” these are all focus-group tested words, slogans, and images. They are all designed to help us understand the ideas already in our minds and play them back to us, raising up the candidate and demonizing the opposition. Hiring the people, doing the polling, buying the television time, creating the social media ads, setting up the pulling operations, and much more, all this costs tons of money. In America, as nowhere else in the world, elections are a multibillion-dollar business. That’s why we have so many election campaigns, why they last so long, and why they cost so much. Insiders like Ballard raise the cash to pay for it all. The more cash they raise, the closer they get to the inner circle, and the closer they get to the inner circle, the more cash they can raise. If you’re at all interested in a government that works for us, that actually seeks to drain the swamp, this is the opposite of a virtuous circle. It’s a vicious circle.

Ballard is top of the heap when it comes to raising those dollars for Trump. And let’s be clear, insofar as spending money on campaigns, Trump is no different from any other candidate. But unlike previous presidents, Trump views campaign spending as a cost of doing business. That is to say, the millions of dollars spent on campaigns are grudgingly spent, their purpose purely to hold onto power. And the purpose of that power, of course, is profit. Interlocked power and profit are the only reasons all these clients pay up.

Vladimir Putin, Trump’s role model and closest ally, doesn’t have to spend nearly as much to maintain his power and his own and his friends’ profits. There are no real elections in Russia. There is only Vladimir Putin and his gang of thugs, thieves and murderers. Those who dare to oppose him are simply murdered. That is how Vladimir Putin came to be one of the world’s richest men. Trump isn’t there yet. But be honest, now. Do you have any doubt that he aspires to that position?

Lobbying can be an honest way to earn a living. As the New York Civil Liberties Union’s legislative director, I was once a lobbyist myself. Granted, that was a different kind of lobbyist. Neither I nor the organization I worked for ever made or was expected to make a political contribution. And there were honest lobbyists who did make political contributions and who represented large numbers of people, say a labor union, a police union. That’s the system. But who you represent matters. Who you raise and spend money for matters. Anyone as close to this president as Ballard is to Trump is working for a deeply corrupt individual. There’s just no way to sugarcoat this tawdry reality.

So yes, lots of money pays for getting candidates elected. But there’s lots left over. The final destination for the many millions of dollars that aren’t spent on campaigning? Those go into the Trump family’s bank accounts. Delivering the cash directly to the president is considered in very poor taste. Even under our permissive pay-to-play system, even with the very accommodating William Barr as attorney general, that would still be too raw for Americans to swallow. Most people, even Trump supporters, would not want to see a tobacco company executive hand Donald Trump a bag of cash. So as much as he hates to see all that political money spent on political consultants, on television networks, and so on, as much as he will do anything to get his hands on it, for now at least Trump must show some restraint.

He understands that substantial sums must be spent to maintain power. But the remainder—and we don’t know precisely how much—must be laundered. Or, to put it politely, using Ballard’s term, “navigated” into one of Trump’s many pockets that can be presented—to those who want to believe—as legal and proper.

There are far too many channels, too many of those pockets, to set them out here. Let’s keep it simple. Here’s the lead paragraph in a “Washington Post” story from Dec. 5, 2018:

Lobbyists representing the Saudi government reserved blocks of rooms at President Trump’s Washington, D.C., hotel within a month of Trump’s election in 2016—paying for an estimated 500 nights at the luxury hotel in just three months.

When it comes to the Saudis, Turkey, Qatar, Israel or any other foreign interest, you don’t have to be a political scientist to understand that our government’s policies and actions are directly swayed by the flow of money from Ballard’s clients. The campaign promise to “Drain the swamp” helped Trump gain the presidency. A great slogan, perhaps Trump’s greatest con ever, it quickly morphed into the operating principle of the Trump presidency: “I would like you to do me a favor, though.”

 

[1] Russian and other foreign dollars that find their way into Trump’s political pockets are illegal. While foreign influence in our elections isn’t unique to Trump, the magnitude of it is stunning and is unprecedented,

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