My story in the July issue of the magazine details how two beltway lobby shops I approached, on the pretense that I represented a shady London-based energy firm with a stake in Turkmenistan, proposed to whitewash the image of that country’s Stalinist regime. Now, having been punk’d (as PR Week put it), Cassidy & Associates and APCO are seeking to lie and spin their way out of the embarrassing situation in which they find themselves.
Both lobbying firms have complained that my tactics were “unethical.” Now APCO has issued a press release acknowledging that it met with the Maldon Group–the name of my fictitious energy firm–but saying that it was never actually interested in winning the contract to work for Turkmenistan. “If Silverstein had bothered to have even a second meeting or to further engage, he could have found out that he would not make the cut to become one of our clients,” the press release says.
It’s true there was no second meeting, but only because I rejected overtures from the firm to hold one. Indeed, APCO began cravenly groveling to win the Turkmenistan deal immediately after my meeting with the firm at its Washington offices in late February. In an email a few days later, senior vice president Barry Schumacher wrote:
On behalf of all my colleagues, I want to thank you for meeting with us yesterday. I hope you took away from our meeting a good sense of our capabilities, experience and expertise . . . I know you will be returning to London to discuss with your colleagues the results of your DC meetings. If, prior to, or as part of those meetings, you need anything else from us, please do not hesitate to contact me.
In March, Schumacher emailed to ask for “an update on where the Maldon Group is on potentially retaining a firm here in DC to assist the Turkmenistan government,” and asking if there was “anything else you need from us” before making a decision. That same month, after being told that the Maldon Group had still not made a decision, Schumacher emailed again to say that he was soon coming to London on business:
If APCO is still under consideration to be your partner on the Turkmenistan initiative, and if there is any value, I would be delighted to meet with you and your colleagues on Thursday at a time and location of your choice,” he wrote. “That way, if there is more you would like to know about us, or if you feel you wish us to be your partner, we could either answer questions or move the effort forward.
This threw me into a brief panic as the Maldon Group, being non-existent, had no London office and I was of course in Washington, D.C., not London, so I couldn’t possibly meet with Schumacher. So I emailed back to say that the Maldon Group would in fact be making its decision on which lobby firm to hire the very next day and that I’d let him know the outcome; whatever the decision I would be traveling in the Middle East and unable to see him when he came to London. Schumacher, hopeful that APCO was about to win the fat Turkmen contact, emailed back:
Thanks. I look forward to your update. I would be happy to meet with anyone you think I should. If after your meeting tomorrow you want me to get together with your colleagues, just give me their coordinates and I will be in touch with them to set up a time on Thursday.
The next day I gave Schumacher the bad news: the Maldon Group had decided to hire a different Washington lobby shop. “Needless to say, we are disappointed,” Schumacher replied. “When we do not get work we always try to find out why and what, if anything we could have done better. Feedback?” When I sent an email offering my condolences, Schumacher wrote back to say, “If something changes, please feel free to contact us. We enjoyed our meeting with you and would welcome a future opportunity to assist you.”
So much for APCO’s claim that it never really wanted to work for Turkmenistan.
Cassidy & Associates, incidentally, was just as eager to win the contract. Gordon Speed, the firm’s Director of Business Development, emailed me soon after our meeting in Washington to set up a follow-up conference call with senior firm officials (including Gregg Hartley, firm vice chairman and a former top aid to former House Majority Whip Roy Blunt). Additionally, he said, Cassidy wanted to “submit a more formal proposal detailing our plan for a possible future engagement with your company. Our hope is that this document would help give you a better understanding of our proposed strategy.” I accepted this generous offer and the proposal (which I quote from extensively in the article) was soon forthcoming.
In April, I told Speed that the Maldon Group had decided to delay a decision on which firm to hire but said I’d probably be returning to Washington in June and we might want to meet again with firm officials. “Please know that we would welcome the opportunity to work with you at a future date, and would be willing and able to travel to London or another location of your choosing for a second meeting,” he replied by email. “In the meantime, please keep us apprised of your decision-making, and certainly let us know if there is anything we can do to help.” In May, Speed, having heard nothing from me, emailed again to ask about my travel plans. If I was still coming to Washington, “we would welcome the opportunity to meet again and discuss any of your firms [sic] projects which we might be helpful. If you don’t have plans to travel to the US, I will again express our willingness to meet you in London if that might be more advantageous to you and your schedule.”
As to the question of ethics: beyond the irony of being questioned on the matter by lobbyists who were eager and willing to lobby for Turkmenistan, and who in the past have among them represented clients such as Azerbaijan and Equatorial Guinea, I’m comfortable with a side-by-side comparison. I did trick the firms–in order to demonstrate just how easy it is for lobbyists to manipulate political and public opinion. The lobbyists, on the other hand, offered to go to work on behalf of one of the world’s most horrific regimes in exchange for the lavish fees they proposed to charge the Maldon Group. The bottom line is that Cassidy and APCO were blinded by greed, thereby exposing their own low ethics as well as the crying need for lobbying reform.
Undercover journalism should be used sparingly, but it has often yielded rich benefits. One of my favorite cases came in the 1970s, when the Chicago Sun-Times bought its own tavern and exposed gross corruption on the part of city inspectors. Unfortunately, few news outlets are willing to use undercover journalism to get a story, or to practice investigative journalism in general. It’s just too expensive and risky; media organizations would rather spend their money on tables at the White House Correspondents dinner and watch Karl Rove rap.
David Henderson sums it up nicely when he points out how flimsy my cover story actually was. For example, Henderson said it took him all of one minute to discover that the web site for my firm–themaldongroup.com–was “registered to someone in Chesterbrook, PA . . . another red flag.” As I said, the firms were blinded by greed.