WASHINGTON — To understand how this city works, how it is fueled by connections and insider knowledge as much as it is by bills, amendments and debate, consider Doug Gregory.
The St. Petersburg native worked as chief of staff and House Appropriations Committee aide to U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young for 36 years. Then he became a lobbyist.
Gregory's job now is helping defense contractors get money from his old boss. This fiscal year, he got $10.6 million.
Young, 79, is one of the all-time appropriations kings, using years of accumulated power to secure hundreds of millions in "earmarks," the insider term for money lawmakers siphon off for projects of their liking. Young and Gregory prefer a softer description: "congressional initiatives."
Gregory, 61, is only doing what scores of aides-turned-lobbyists do each day. But he and Young play roles in a system that many feel is flawed and wasteful, a web of cozy ties, campaign contributions and lax oversight.
"Earmarks are a petri dish for corruption," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a group that tracks spending.
Despite all the money Gregory has gotten clients — together five clients got more than $37 million in three years — he plays down his ability to influence the Republican congressman from Indian Shores. Gregory said he mainly reviews proposals for clients before those are taken to Young.
"My friendship probably provides them with something that somebody else wouldn't," he acknowledged. "But I am very, very careful not to use that friendship to try to get him to do something that he wouldn't do on his own."
Said Young: "I don't make decisions based on whether it's Doug Gregory or any other lobbyist."
The value of keeping in touch
After graduating from Florida State University in 1970, Gregory went to work for Young in Washington. Young chaired the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense from 1995 to 1998 and from 2005 to 2006 and is now the panel's top Republican. From 1999 to 2005, he chaired the full Appropriations Committee, overseeing the entire federal discretionary budget.
Longevity affords Young immense power. This year he secured $83.7 million of a total $4 billion in defense earmarks — more than any other House member, according to an analysis by Taxpayers for Common Sense. Over the past three years, he has delivered a total of $323 million, some of which goes to the University of South Florida and other schools for research.
It was Gregory who helped create what Young calls his "smell test" for earmarks. The review includes asking the Department of Defense if it can use a product or is interested in an idea.
At least four of Gregory's current clients got earmarks while he was a staff member. Young says that is as evidence he and the companies have a track record. But it was Gregory who shepherded those earmarks through, and now he is doing the same on the other side of the table.
"This is the quintessential revolving door," said Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Companies are snapping up a former staffer because they know they can get access to (Young) to get more cash."
If that's the case, Gregory is not alone. Washington lobbying firms are full of ex-staffers. More than 80 percent at Gregory's firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, have worked on Capitol Hill. Two other former Young aides work there as well.
Gregory's long service in the House, the knowledge he gained and the connections he made inside and outside the military, give him a decided edge.
"Doug has something you just can't get with another lobbyist," said Jonathan Sadowsky, CEO of Clearwater-based Revenge Advanced Composites, which got help from Gregory in 2006 in securing its first earmark.
"Doug can say it's a good approach, or that doesn't make sense. ... I didn't hire him to get into Congressman Young's office."
This year Revenge got a $3 million earmark from Young to develop a robotic system for making seamless boat hulls. The company has made watercraft under contract from the Special Operations Command, based at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa.
Another beneficiary of Young earmarks
Another company that hired Gregory is Mikros Systems Corp. It has offices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania but opened one in a Pinellas County business incubator that bears Young's name — the Young-Rainey STAR Center.
In making the announcement last February, Mikros president Thomas Meaney raved about space for "a growing technical and support staff" and the proximity to other defense contractors. A year later it has only one employee in Florida.
Young had already helped the company with a $1 million earmark in 2008 to design a radar diagnostic tool for ships. That money enabled Mikros to secure a contract with the Navy. This year, Young gave the firm another $1 million.
Defense firms have been known to set up shop in an influential congressman's district to gain access to money. But Young and the companies he supports deny that is what's happening here. "We have saved or created a lot more jobs in Pinellas County than the Obama $787 billion stimulus bill," he said, smiling.
Mikros chairman Paul Casner said he encouraged the company to establish roots in Florida because it can partner with another local company, DRS Technologies, on the radar systems. DRS has received nearly $19 million in earmarks for its own projects, and it got millions more while Gregory was on Young's staff. (DRS's lobbyist: Doug Gregory.)
Casner, who lives in Clearwater Beach, said he is not satisfied that Mikros has only one employee in Florida but insisted more would come as contract money starts flowing. "I think it's a wonderful place to grow whether Congressman Young is in office or not."
The debate over spending earmarks
Young, Gregory and the contractors share a common belief that their work is essential to national security. "He's a real patriot," Casner says of the congressman.
Through it all runs a serious debate about earmarks — one that started well before President Barack Obama called for more transparency of them in his State of the Union speech last month.
"If we're making the case that the DOD isn't doing a good job selecting contractors or if its procurement process is flawed, we should address that rather than run a parallel process," said Arizona Republican Rep. Jeff Flake, a leading earmark critic. "As flawed as their process may be, there is absolutely no way it is as bad as members of Congress doing this.
"These are essentially no-bid contracts for private companies awarded by a single member of Congress."
The military is unlikely to turn down requests from powerful lawmakers who hold the purse strings, others say, which creates a process where Congress is driving ideas for what is needed. The lawmakers push ideas the military has not asked for or, in some cases, does not want.
"There is no professional evaluation on whether these things fill a real need," said Winslow Wheeler, who tracked national security issues in Congress for 31 years and now works for the Center for Defense Information. "We don't know what the hell these things are and neither do they."
Because lawmakers in both political parties pursue earmarks, there is little appetite for oversight hearings or at least partisan debate. "Basically, everybody agrees not to scrutinize each other," Flake said. "It really is a recipe for problems."
Young counters with ideas that were rejected or not funded by the military but later proved indispensable, chiefly Predator drones now used in Afghanistan. Alakai Defense Systems, also based at the STAR Center in Largo and a recipient of Young earmarks, has developed technology that helps troops detect roadside bombs.
"Our overlooked approach has been validated by those who originally overlooked us," said Alakai president Ed Dottery.
Defending the system and its practitioners
Young's earmarking prowess has drawn attention over the years. Last fall, he was one of several lawmakers questioned by congressional ethics investigators over earmarks secured by the now-defunct lobbying firm PMA Group. Young steered $8.4 million to PMA clients in the Tampa Bay area, but the inquiry against him was dropped in December.
Young denies he makes decisions based on campaign contributions. Over the past two years, he collected more than $123,000 in contributions from the defense industry, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense.
A St. Petersburg Times review found small to moderate contributions from the companies Gregory represents. Gregory's lobbying firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, has given Young about $36,000 since 2000. (Gregory is not among the donors; he's given about $20,000 to other defense appropriators since 2007.) The firm said there is no connection between support for Young and earmarks.
"Absolutely not," said Young.
After four decades in the House, Young has been entertaining retirement. But recent signs show he may seek another term, after all. That would be good for defense contractors — and for Gregory.
Sitting in his office, surrounded by military accolades and mementos, Gregory said he could have chosen several paths when he left Young. He could have retired, gone into teaching or joined one of Washington's ubiquitous think tanks. But he said those did not suit him.
He is direct about his motivation. He wanted to earn more money for his family, including daughters in college. And in Washington, that means becoming a lobbyist. Of the tens of millions his clients have gotten from Young, Gregory says, "I helped them, no question about that."
But he bristles at the suggestion that his success is based on anything other than the merit of an idea. "My friendships are much too valuable to me to use that friendship," he said of Young and other defense appropriators.
"Would I try to persuade them that it's a good thing to do? Absolutely. And if I can, that's great."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.