A public affairs firm run by former senior aides to President Obama has worked to promote Republican Rep. Lee Terry's re-election bid in Nebraska while also working against one of the issues he championed: the Keystone XL pipeline.
The Smoot Tewes Group has worked for Fuels America, a coalition of ethanol interests in favor of the renewable fuel standard, and for All Risk No Reward, a group representing national and local environmental groups opposed to KXL. The firm is named after Julianna Smoot and Paul Tewes, both former senior Obama campaign aides.
The firm's work on behalf of the two clients has led to Terry's being boosted or blasted in the media and on the campaign trail as he faces a tough re-election bid.
With Election Day only days away, Fuels America ran ads last week praising several lawmakers who worked to protect the RFS. Part of that push included a positive television ad for Terry, which cost the group $84,000 to run in the congressman's Omaha district, according to Federal Election Commission records.
A Smoot Tewes official emailed reporters about the ads, securing press coverage of Terry and other lawmakers and their work on behalf of the fuel standard (Greenwire, Oct. 21). Fuels America is keeping pressure on the Obama administration to back down from scaling down the RFS's requirements for ethanol and advanced biofuel use -- a heated election-year issue for farmers and the Midwest (Greenwire, Oct. 23).
The firm, however, has also done work for All Risk No Reward -- a coalition that counts among its members those actively working to boot Terry out of the office.
This past February, The Washington Post identified Tewes and Dan Kanninen, another ex-Obama campaign aide and former White House liaison for U.S. EPA, as working for the environmental coalition. All Risk No Reward's goal is to have the Obama administration reject TransCanada Corp.'s application to build a transboundary pipeline from Canadian oil sands to Gulf Coast refineries.
Terry has been one of Capitol Hill's most ardent KXL supporters. The Nebraska Republican has sponsored legislation to speed approval of the pipeline, which has passed the House (Greenwire, Sept. 26).
In response to Terry's support for Keystone, Bold Nebraska -- a member of All Risk No Reward -- has sent out letters to American Indian voters, has run newspaper ads and will go door to door on horseback this weekend to get out the vote.
Jane Kleeb, founder of Bold Nebraska, said Fuels America's ads won't help Terry this election.
"Representative Terry has disrespected farmers, ranchers and Native voters over and over again. A TV commercial will not change that basic fact. We stand opposed to any risky tar sands pipelines threatening the farmland where biofuels and food are grown," Kleeb said.
Dan Leistikow with Smoot Tewes said the firm doesn't consider its work on behalf of the two clients contradictory.
"While our firm doesn't comment on particular contracts, our work on behalf of the renewable fuel standard and against the Keystone pipeline is neither a secret nor a conflict -- since they are two different issues, two different clients and those clients make their own decisions about who to target electorally," Leistikow said.
"We're proud of our work on behalf of a wide array of projects that promote clean, American energy while reducing our foreign oil dependence," Leistikow added.
'Outside the Beltway'
Smoot Tewes' work on behalf of its clients falls within the world of issue campaigns and strategic communications, designed to influence government policy like old-fashioned, shoe-leather lobbying, but without the same disclosure standards.
"Their intent is to influence some sort of policy outcome, which is not that different from your traditional lobbyist," said Tim LaPira, an associate political science professor at James Madison University.
"Who pays for what goes on outside the Beltway is an entirely different thing from what goes on inside the Beltway. Federal lobbyists in Washington have to report much more than these PR firms do," he added.
Lobbyists have begun to deregister in droves, reducing disclosure of their clients and pay, since Obama took office. Many on K Street blame the president's harsh rhetoric and restrictions on registered lobbyists for influence-peddlers' retreat into the shadows.
In addition, consulting and public affairs firms have taken off -- many of whom advocate on the same issues as lobbyists with different tactics, such as grassroots campaigns and television ads. Those tactics often don't require registering under the Lobbying Disclosure Act since there's little -- if any -- direct contact with lawmakers or other government officials.
Consequentially, it's difficult to track who is working for whom.
"If there was more transparency, it will give the firm an incentive not to engage in conflicts of interest. That's not to say that this firm does have a conflict of interest, but if they had to report, that would give them an incentive not to have one," said LaPira, who has studied interest groups and lobbying.
"These are new tactics out there that didn't exist 15 years ago and have created a new sub-industry in influence," he said.
The Smoot Tewes clients involved in the Terry race don't see the firm's work as a conflict.
"STG came on board with Fuels America in early 2014 to work on the renewable fuels standard," said Jonathon Lehman, treasurer for Fuels America. "We are aware of their work on behalf of the anti-Keystone pipeline coalition, and we don't see it as a conflict with our goals."
"From my perspective, it doesn't really represent a conflict," said Gabby Brown, a spokeswoman for All Risk No Reward.
Terry's campaign is in one of the more competitive House districts this election cycle, with his race being listed as a "tossup" by The Cook Political Report. Fuels America's ad buy-in support of the congressman likely won't be forgotten if Terry wins re-election.
"The investment is timed to exact the maximum amount of gratitude from these lawmakers because it was made at a crucial time in these races. If these candidates win, they undoubtedly will be having warm and fuzzy feelings towards this group," said Kathy Kiely, managing editor at the Sunlight Foundation.
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