Legislators Say Port Lobbying Work Violated Spirit of State Law

A current and a former state lawmaker said the Virginia Port Authority’s decade-long federal lobbying activity runs afoul of a 1994 bill barring agencies in the commonwealth from hiring lobbyists.

The law states employing an outside lobbyist “by an officer, board, institution or agency of the Commonwealth is expressly prohibited.” But starting at least as early as 2003, the port authority hired a federal lobbyist through Moffatt & Nichol, one of its contractors.

The arrangement, which was first reported by the Daily Press, was carried out without the knowledge of current members on the agency’s governing board, according to one commissioner.

It also surprised lawmakers, including one who helped craft the bill containing the prohibition.

“In my personal opinion the port authority is violating at least the spirit of the law,” said Bob Calhoun, an Alexandria lawyer and former state senator who was the chief sponsor of lobbying legislation passed during the 1994 session.

“I think it flies in the face of what the intent of the legislation was,” said Senate Majority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City County. “Whether or not it constitutes a technical violation of it, I’m not in a position to offer an opinion.”

VPA board chairman William Fralin, a former delegate from Roanoke, said the board only learned about the lobbyist, Sante Esposito, a little more than two weeks ago. He said commissioners, who with one exception have had two or fewer years on the board, are studying the situation and have asked the Attorney General to weigh in on whether the agency was on the wrong side of the law.

However even as state lawyers ponder the legal implications of the arrangement, rival ports are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into federal lobbying – scrapping for scarce dollars doled out across the country for port infrastructure work.

The Georgia Ports Authority, which runs the Port of Savannah, spent as much as $1.7 million on lobbying in the last decade. More than half of that amount, or as much as $910,000, was paid to Hurt, Norton & Associates over the past three years, according to disclosure forms the firm filed with Congress.

The South Carolina Ports Authority, which operates the Port of Charleston, paid two lobbying firms as much as $695,000 over the last three years, according to disclosure forms.

Fralin said Virginia needs to figure out how to compete in Washington, where Georgia and South Carolina are pressing for millions of federal dollars for dredging projects so they can handle ever-larger cargo ships.

“We need to figure out how to explain to the federal government that every port in America doesn’t have to be dredged to 50 feet and that that might not be a wise use of our federal funds, particularly when you’ve got one sitting here with two Class 1 railroads (and) 50 feet of depth,” he said.

Norment said the lobbying activity of the VPA’s rivals, probably means Virginia’s lobbying law needs to be tweaked.

“I’m not sure it makes sense to preclude them from having the opportunity to have a federal lobbyist,” he said.

“There’s a great deal going on at a national level that the ports, the management team and board ought to be active on and be well-informed on, so I think it’s something the legislature needs to rethink.

“Some clarification of the law in this area is probably warranted,” Calhoun agreed.

Though it’s simple to find out what South Carolina, Georgia and other port authorities around the country pay for lobbying in recent years, the extent of the VPA’s recent lobbying is a mystery.

It’s difficult to pinpoint using public records what the VPA paid indirectly to Esposito in recent years, though lobbying disclosure forms, Federal Advocates’ website and interviews with port authority officials and legislative staffers indicate that he has worked on the agency’s behalf for about a decade.

While working for E. Del Smith and Company, between 2003 and 2005, Esposito filed disclosure forms listing as much as $355,000-worth of work for Moffatt & Nichol related to two VPA projects. They refer to the Heartland Corridor rail project and Craney Island, a project to develop a new deep-water ocean terminal in Portsmouth.

In the years after Esposito left E. Del Smith and started Federal Advocates, the disclosure forms for Moffatt & Nichol are more general.

Typical descriptions are, “Worked to secure funding for a port development project within the (fiscal year) ’09 appropriations process” and “secure funding for port improvement projects.” Esposito’s work for Moffatt & Nichol covered other port clients, according to both Federal Advocates’ website and his early disclosure forms. However, it’s impossible to tell how much of his port work was related to the Port of Virginia.

Federal Advocates charged Moffatt & Nichol as much around $1 million between 2010 and 2012, however.

Two messages left with Federal Advocates over the past two weeks have not been returned. But a legislative aide to Sen. Mark Warner told the Daily Press that Esposito had set up meetings in the past year between port authority officials and the senator’s staff.

If state law is changed to allow the port authority to hire a federal lobbyist, and the agency did so, that lobbyist would file a disclosure form stating within a range what the agency had spent.

Norment said that sort of transparency would be preferable.

“That’s something I think should be disclosed, and it’s not inconsistent with what we require on the state level,” he said.

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