September 14, 2015 Government, In The News, News

Lobbyist Finds a Quiet Place to Work, as a Six-Figure U.S. Government Contractor

Photo: El Nuevo Dia, via Associated Press

By Eric Lipton, The New York Times, 9/14/2015

WASHINGTON — In this city with a grand tradition of government officials who pass through the revolving door into a world of big paychecks, Jeffrey Farrow, the head of a tiny federal agency called the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad, has set what might be a new standard for boldness and creativity.

While earning more than $100,000 a year serving as executive director of the independent agency, which has only one full-time federal employee, Mr. Farrow has simultaneously helped collect as much as $750,000 a year in lobbying fees, representing clients including the governments of Puerto Rico and the Republic of Palau, a tiny island nation in the western Pacific.

Mr. Farrow was at once a federal government bureaucrat and lobbyist. The revolving door did not even have to spin.

He managed this feat while running one of dozens of agencies that get lost in the vast bureaucracy of the United States government — this one responsible for identifying and helping preserve cemeteries and historic buildings in Eastern and Central Europe that are important to American Jews and others, including Orthodox Christians from Kosovo.

At times, one agency staff member has alleged, Mr. Farrow handled some of his lobbying work while at the offices of the federal agency.

“A bizarre tale,” said Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a letter he sent last month to Lesley Weiss, the chairwoman of the 30-year-old commission, asking her to explain Mr. Farrow’s dual roles. “This lobbyist used federal personnel and resources to run a profitable personal business advancing the interest of foreign agents.”

Mr. Farrow declined repeated requests for comment, and Ms. Weiss did not return calls seeking comment. But Warren L. Miller, a former federal prosecutor from Virginia who served for over a decade as chairman of the commission, said in an interview that he had been unaware that Mr. Farrow was also working as a registered foreign agent — a type of lobbyist hired by a foreign government, like Palau.

But Mr. Miller, who still serves on the commission board after stepping down as chairman in 2012, said Mr. Farrow had done nothing wrong because he works as a contractor, first hired in 2001, rather than as a full-fledged federal government employee, even with his title of executive director.

“I don’t think it was improper or unethical or illegal in any way,” Mr. Miller said, adding that during Mr. Farrow’s tenure, the agency had helped preserve dozens of cemeteries and other important historic and cultural sites in spots from Austria to Serbia.

Experts in government ethics and lobbying law said that the different hats Mr. Farrow has simultaneously worn — as a lobbyist, foreign agent and executive director of a federal agency — is at minimum highly unusual.

“Whether or not there is a legal violation here, you do have a mixing of roles that I have certainly never seen before,” said Caleb P. Burns, a partner at Wiley Rein, a Washington law firm, who specializes in lobbying and ethics laws. “Someone burrowed so deeply in the government and yet at the same time engaging in lobbying and representing a foreign government — it is pretty brazen.”

With an annual budget of $644,000, Mr. Farrow took home about 16 percent of that allocation as his personal compensation, given his salary of at least $104,000 a year, even though he was only expected to work for the agency for eight to 20 hours a week, according to a report on the agency by the General Services Administration’s inspector general, completed in 2013, but never made public. A copy of the report was provided to The New York Times.

Mr. Farrow, as a result of his different jobs, was often working with the State Department and members of Congress in his official capacity — as the agency urged foreign governments to preserve cemeteries and other historic sites — while he was also making appeals to these same officials on behalf of his lobbying clients. For the government of Palau, he described himself as a “special adviser,” foreign agent lobbying records filed with the Department of Justice show.

As a representative of Palau, Mr. Farrow frequently contacted the State Department, which recently released more than 20 emails between Mr. Farrow and Hillary Rodham Clinton and her top aides while she was secretary of state. Mr. Farrow tried to press Mrs. Clinton and her staff to sign off on a new agreement with the country that would offer it more foreign assistance than had been planned.

“Palau offended by U.S. positions,” said one email Mr. Farrow wrote to Mrs. Clinton in 2009, as he helped the Palau push for the new agreement, before explaining to Mrs. Clinton in detail the government’s objections.

Mrs. Clinton sent that email to Jake Sullivan, one of her top foreign policy advisers, saying “Pls review, do some recon outreach and advise what, if anything, we should do.”

The outcome clearly pleased Mr. Farrow, who had also served on Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign before she joined the Obama administration. A year later, when a new deal with Palau was signed that set aside additional federal funds for the tiny nation, Mr. Farrow wrote to Mrs. Clinton: “Thanks for all that you did. It obtained U.S. objectives as well as resulted in substantially greater fairness for a former territory.”

Mr. Farrow’s work on behalf of Puerto Rico intensified — and his lobbying fees increased — as the island’s recent financial crisis worsened. After first working directly for the government of Puerto Rico, in the last two years Mr. Farrow has been part of a lobbying team that as of July had been paid $2 million by three nonprofit groups advocating on behalf of the island, including the Puerto Rico Statehood Council.

At that time, Mr. Farrow’s two worlds came together. Records show that a nonprofit group created to help support the Heritage Commission’s work donated money to a hospital and a community college in Palau.

The questions about Mr. Farrow’s varied roles came to light after the agency’s only full-time employee said that Mr. Farrow routinely used the agency’s office to conduct his lobbying work, paid himself an unauthorized bonus with federal funds, and used federal funds to buy subscriptions to publications like the Congressional Quarterly and the Leadership Directories, to help him with his lobbying practice.

An investigation by the inspector general from the General Services Administration concluded that while Mr. Farrow may have handled some of his lobbying duties while at the agency’s offices, he had a personal laptop and cellphone, so “there was insufficient evidence to show any violation by Mr. Farrow.”

The Senate Homeland Security committee has asked the agency to address the allegations. The commission, in a statement, said the allegations, had “been found to be unsubstantiated, factual misunderstandings and factually incorrect,” noting that it would respond to the Senate request later this month

Mr. Johnson, the Wisconsin senator, in a statement released by his office Friday, said the commission, despite its worthwhile mission, was an example of what is wrong with government.

“This relatively tiny agency is a classic example of the dysfunction and waste that typify far too much of the federal government,” he said. “Established with the best of intentions to memorialize the horrors of 20th-century genocides, the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad did little to accomplish that goal but was instead used to enrich a lobbyist.”