Cassidy & Associates became fabulously successful by adhering to a disciplined method for winning earmarks from Congress. The Cassidy formula -- treated as a trade secret for years -- employed thorough research, meticulous planning and eloquent persuasion.
By Robert G. Kaiser
Gerald S.J. Cassidy got rich by sticking to his knitting: Winning appropriations from Congress for colleges, universities and health-care institutions that paid him handsome monthly retainers. This is where his business began and where it prospered, particularly in the 1980s. So how, exactly, did Cassidy and his colleagues do their knitting?
They did it according to plan -- more precisely, by following a lobbying template that evolved in the first half-dozen years of the firm's history and is still in use today. The key to their success was not their personal influence over members of Congress, though they had some of that; nor was it their contributions to members' reelection campaigns, though they made many such contributions. The keys to their success were careful preparation, effective presentation of proposals, and persistent adherence to the template.
Scott Giles, who joined the Cassidy firm in 1986 when he was 25, called this "the system." He described it in an interview:
It began with "the resource inventory," a detailed description of a new client's institution and its potential allies in Congress. Giles and other Cassidy lobbyists typically visited a new client for three or four days. "We'd go through a very in-depth process of trying to inventory their intellectual and political strengths -- and weaknesses," Giles said.
He usually asked the chief executive of the institution to appoint someone from the staff as his helper; he'd try to induce that person's cooperation by promising to teach him or her "more about his own campus than anyone else on it knew. . . . We wanted to learn who the star faculty members were, what government advisory boards they were on, etc. We looked at the list of alumni for members of Congress or staff on the Hill."
The resource inventory might show a strength in the institution that could be exploited as part of an effort to win an earmark. Or it might show a weakness that could be highlighted to generate interest in developing a new capability that would be useful to the school and its community. "A weakness could be as useful as a strength," Giles remembered, if it could be used to persuade a congressional delegation that their state or area needed a capability that a well-drafted earmark might provide.
When the resource inventory was complete, "we'd prepare a case statement," Giles said. This articulated the case for a particular project -- why it was desirable, what benefits it would bring, etc. Cassidy & Associates took pride in producing well-written, persuasive case statements full of facts and figures. "Then we'd work out a political strategy," he said. It often involved creation of a local advisory committee whose membership would depend on the specific situation. It would include interested and affected parties. "If it were a new treatment facility for some disease, you might look for a patients' advocate in that disease. Local leaders, too. You'd want a group that would endorse the project as a good thing for the community and its region. People who could come to Washington and help lobby. . . . We'd train the people we were going to use in Washington on how to lobby, how to talk about the project, people from the institution and from the advisory committee."
Those were not the only people Cassidy and his colleagues trained. In the '70s and '80s, they also taught members of Congress how to enact earmarked appropriations, another important ingredient of their success. Giles recalled that sometimes, when they brought a client to a member of Congress to make a pitch for a new project, the member would ask, "Has something like this been done before? And the lobbyist would be ready with a list of precedents" -- that is, a list of similar projects already approved by Congress. Giles said he used to present such lists himself.
Don Smith, another Cassidy lobbyist, recalled accompanying the president of the University of Nebraska, Ronald W. Roskins, on a visit to Rep. Virginia D. Smith (no relation to the lobbyist), a Nebraskan who was the senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee and a member of the Appropriations Committee. They wanted her support for a large earmark to build an agricultural research building, to house research on alternative uses of Nebraska's farm produce. Rep. Smith dismissed the idea. "We don't do that, the Congress doesn't do that," she said.
But it did, as the lobbyist later explained to the congresswoman's staff in some detail, sharing examples of other such earmarks, and also showing her staff how, mechanically, such a provision could be included in an agricultural appropriations bill.
Don Smith also recalled walking down a long corridor in a Senate office building with Roskins when the university president suddenly walked into a senator's office, explaining that he wanted "to see Chuck." That was Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who, Smith was amazed to hear, had been Roskins's roommate at the University of Northern Iowa. Grassley became an ally of the Nebraska project.
Finding the right legislative vehicle could be a challenge. Don Smith recalled that in the case of that Nebraska project, the client and its lobbyists aimed not at one appropriation, but several. "At the time, pork barrel projects were getting so much attention that we felt a project costing more than $20 million would draw too much attention. So it was broken down into smaller pieces for multiple appropriations subcommittees."
Seven individual earmarked appropriations ranging from $50,000 to $5.7 million were approved for the Nebraska project between 1988 and 1991, totaling $20.4 million. They didn't look like one project, but three separate centers -- for advanced technology, science and technology, and genetic and biomaterial research.
An important part of the Cassidy system was setting the fee. This was a specialty of Cassidy himself, who colleagues nearly universally credit with a gift for knowing how much to charge. Said Greg Schneiders, who worked for Cassidy in the '90s, "Cassidy is just terrific at charging." He can toss out "huge numbers" at just the right moment in a conversation with a client or potential client, Schneiders said, and usually get what he asked for.
Academic institutions typically paid the Cassidy firm $25,000-$40,000 a month for its services in the late '80s and early '90s. The number sounds big, but if the payoff was an earmark worth $20 million or even more, Cassidy quickly became a cheaper way to raise money than most traditional forms of fundraising. Boston University paid Cassidy as much as $15 million over the years, but it got $106.1 million in return. The University of Hawaii won earmarks of more than $240 million over 21 years.
The duration of the typical Cassidy contract was two or three years. Colleagues remember a favorite warning to clients who got antsy when Congress failed to approve the grants they were seeking in the first year or even two. The warning was often issued by Gerald Cassidy himself: "The only person who gets hurt on a roller coaster is the person who tries to get out in the middle of the ride." Keeping the client on board became a challenge to the lobbyists' ingenuity.
Elliott Fiedler, a Cassidy lobbyist from 1987 to 1995, recalled the example of the Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, a client in the early '90s that was seeking $15 million in federal funds to build an ambulatory care research and teaching center as a demonstration project that would use the latest energy-efficient technologies. "When we didn't get anything in the first year, we arranged for a colloquy" between Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the "champion" of this project, to use the Cassidy firm's vocabulary, and Sens. Bennett Johnston (D-La.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Mark Hatfield of Oregon, then ranking Republican on that committee.
A colloquy on the Senate floor has no legal standing; it is often not spoken but inserted in the Congressional Record as a written document. But it can have its utility. On this occasion, according to the Record, Specter said:
"Mr. President, Hahnemann University has proposed a project that will serve as a model energy-efficient medical and education facility . . . . It is my belief that the demonstration of this technology warrants Federal assistance. . . . Mr. President I understand that it was not possible to accommodate funding for this project in the energy and water appropriations bill for fiscal year 1992. However, I remain committed to working with the subcommittee to establish some initial funding for this project . . . in next year's funding plan for the Department of Energy."
" . . . I would be pleased to review this project next year in an effort to secure Federal assistance for this project in fiscal year 1993 . . . ."
And Hatfield added:
" . . . Although I currently am unfamiliar with the Hahnemann University proposed Ambulatory Care Research and Teaching Center, I will also review its numerous meritorious aspects which recently have been brought to my attention . . . I also look forward to making every effort to obtaining funding for and working with the Senator on this important issue."
The Hahnemann Hospital board loved this colloquy, Fiedler remembered; on the basis of it, they stuck with Cassidy & Associates for four more years, at $25,000 a month. "They finally got the grant," Fiedler said. Over the four years, Cassidy would have earned $1.2 million from Hahnemann. In return, the Hospital got a $15 million earmark. Not a bad system.
Washington Post research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.
Tomorrow: "Selling" Cassidy & Associates to its own employees.
An overview of Gerald Cassidy's life and career.
A "cast of characters" in the life and career of Gerald Cassidy.
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