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  • A Business Insider review of lobbying records found more than a dozen lobbyists tied to President Donald Trump who signed up new clients seeking relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The biggest single recipient of COVID-19 bailout loans from the Trump administration is a Trump campaign donor, Monty Bennett, who hired a pair of Trump fundraisers to bail out his hotel chain. His companies received $58 million in loans this month.
  • Ethicists say that Trump political operatives signing up clients to ply favors from Trump has the appearance of “corruption and cronyism.”
  • But a lobbyist for Ballard Partners says the media and critics often ignore the good work do, like efforts to protect hospitals amid the COVID-19 onslaught.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

It’s no secret that, under the Trump administration, the political lobbying industry has tightened its grip on Washington. But the coronavirus crisis has also begun to reveal the federal government’s relatively new dependence on Trump-connected lobbyists in order to simply govern.

Lobbying-disclosure records, and interviews with Republican sources, identified more than a dozen lobbyists with Trump ties who have signed up new clients or repurposed past relationships to help clients deal with COVID-19 and its continuing economic toll.

Ride-sharing and scooter companies, laundromats, gyms, and high-end pharmaceutical companies all found themselves suddenly and urgently in need of a line into the Trump administration. And they secured it through a slew of top fundraisers, campaign operatives, and former Trump aides offering their services as guides to Washington during the coronavirus pandemic — for a price, of course.

In perhaps the most striking example, a billionaire Dallas hotelier, and Trump campaign donor, Monty Bennett, hired a pair of Trump fundraisers, Jeff Miller and Roy Bailey, and won the single largest payout from the Paycheck Protection Program — $58 million. 

Miller’s firm, Miller Strategies, and Ballard Partners, run by the chairman of Trump’s re-election campaign in Florida, Brian Ballard, top the list of Trump-adjacent lobbyists who signed up COVID-19 related clients.  But the list also includes former top staffers who worked directly with the senior administration officials who are now deciding the fates of industries struggling to ride out the pandemic.

“Washington is a maze; it’s a labyrinth, and many times clients need assistance when their businesses and their employees are hurting to navigate that maze,” Justin Sayfie, a partner at Ballard Partners, said. “So knowing which door to knock on is something we help our clients with.”

Demand for such expertise and connections is especially high as the US government response rapidly oscillates. On Friday, for example, the Department of Homeland Security issued new guidelines for which industries it considered essential to the country’s operation through the pandemic — creating instant winners and losers for Trump-connected clients.

Ballard and Miller charge upward of $300,000 to $400,000 a year for the access and influence they can provide. “They’re printing money,” one veteran Republican lobbyist said.

The Trump campaign did not return a half-dozen requests for comment emailed over the course of more than a week. The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment filed over the same period. A spokeswoman for the Small Business Administration, which administers the federal loan program that was supposed to help small businesses, said they approve loans on a first-come, first-served basis as applications are submitted by lenders. 

Clients have much to lose, and much to gain, from the pandemic

Ballard and Miller are hardly known outside the Beltway, but they both boast deep ties to the ever-shifting whirlwind of characters that blew into Washington, DC, with Trump’s shocking electoral victory. Ballard comes out of Florida politics, where he led Trump’s statewide fundraising effort, and he has signed up a team of Trump-linked people, including former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who helped lead Trump’s public defense in the impeachment trial.

As the threat of the coronavirus became clear about a month ago, Ballard started signing up new clients, records showed, including Getaround Inc., a Silicon Valley ride-sharing company; Bird, a scooter company that suffered through layoffs; and NanoPure, a chemical company that promises deep disinfecting of office spaces. They all had much to lose, or gain, from the pandemic.

Miller, the top political adviser to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, is the vice finance chair of the 2020 Republican National Convention and a top fundraiser for Trump’s reelection effort. In addition to Bennett’s companies, his firm has signed up the California Business Roundtable, which represents midsize businesses facing existential threats; the airplane charter company iAero Group; and Nuclein LLC, a company the provides rapid testing for infectious diseases.

Miller did not respond to a request for comment. 

And as Mnuchin emerged as Trump’s quarterback for the ongoing economic rescue, negotiating trillions of dollars in stimulus spending with Congress, lobbyists with ties to him also booked new clients: Mnuchin’s former director of legislative affairs Brad Bailey represented the American Investment Council; Matthew Kellogg, a former Treasury deputy assistant for legislative affairs, represented the global bank HSBC; and Jared Sawyer, a former Treasury deputy assistant secretary for financial policy, worked for the Bank of New York Mellon Corp.

The fight for what is deemed ‘essential’ work

All of that lobbying is starting to pay off.

Last Friday, the Department of Homeland Security released updated guidance detailing which industries the federal government considers “critical” enough to remain open through the pandemic. The update included a couple of major changes desired by Trump-connected lobbying clients.

In one example, the department swapped out the word “employees” in previous guidance for the word “workers,” according to a document circulated in Washington’s lobbying community showing changes from the last update to the guidance, which was issued at the end of March.

The change was a win for ride-sharing companies and gig workers who’d been left in the cold when the coronavirus first started to cause US illnesses and wreak havoc on the country’s economy.

That was good news for the likes of Getaround Inc., the 10-year-old ride-sharing company headquartered in San Francisco that had signed up Ballard, Trump’s Florida campaign chairman, to lobby on its behalf. Bennett’s Ashford Hotels could also claim a victory from a sentence inserted into the new DHS guidance that deemed hotels “essential” to provide services to first responders and healthcare workers.

When he was asked about the changes in the DHS guidelines, a DHS spokesman pointed to the press release issued on Friday, which said DHS had received “feedback” but did not specify where that feedback came from. A White House spokesman did not return multiple requests for comment from Business Insider. Nor did a spokesman for the Trump campaign.

An ethics expert said it has ‘the appearance of corruption and cronyism’

Virginia Canter, the former chief ethics counsel for President Barack Obama, said the proliferation of former Trump White House aides and campaign operatives signing up bailout clients reeks of the very “swampiness” Trump campaigned against.

“It gives the appearance of corruption and cronyism,” said Canter, who now serves as the chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a DC watchdog group. 

Sayfie, a lobbyist working at Ballard Partners, told Business Insider in an interview that watchdogs and journalists often ignore what he regards as noble lobbying, citing his firm’s representation of local hospital systems, such as Broward Health in South Florida, that serve the poor and uninsured.

“They’re bleeding losses; they’re preparing for a surge that isn’t going to come,” he said. “How much money did these hospitals lose preparing for these storms that didn’t come?” Sayfie said. “Who’s going to make good on that?”

Sayfie denied that Ballard’s lobbyists trade on Trump’s name or promise special access to his officials when he was asked whether the fundraising Ballard does for Trump gives the firm special access. 

“We never publicly or privately discuss people’s relationships with any public official. That’s not how we operate; it’s not part of our vocabulary,” Sayfie said.

The Ballard Partners website, however, prominently touts its partners’ relationships with Trump and his campaign. Ballard’s biography says his “political portfolio includes significant roles in presidential campaigns including the historic election of President Donald J. Trump.”

Sayfie’s biography recounts his connections to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former President George W. Bush, and former Sen. Mel Martinez. It also says that he “was appointed by President Donald J. Trump to serve as a Commissioner on the President’s Commission on White House Fellowship.”

The Trump donor who won big with Trump

Perhaps the clearest winner, in the race to find aid from the federal government, may be the billionaire owner of a national portfolio of hotels, and prolific Trump campaign donor: Monty Bennett. Bennett hired Miller and another Trump fundraiser, Roy Bailey, to lobby the Treasury Department for relief, and this month he secured more loans than any other company — big or small — $58 million. 

Bennett, Miller and Bailey did not return repeated requests for comment sent before and after Business Insider first broke the news of their efforts. 

Bennett’s portfolio of hotels laid off 95% of its workers and was behind on payments on $4 billion worth of debt when it signed up Miller and Bailey last month to ply the administration. It was the first time his company, Ashford Hotels Inc., and related subsidiaries had ever hired a lobbyist. He spent $50,000 on Miller and Bailey, according to lobbying reports filed with Congress.

All told, Bennett’s companies, which operate more than 128 hotels around the world under more than 20 brands, secured $58 million in bailout loans, more than Shake Shack and Ruth’s Chris Steak House combined, according to Securities and Exchange Commission records first reported by The Wall Street Journal

Bennett wrote in a Medium post on March 17 that he was forced to lay off or furlough more than 6,000 employees. Of the federal aid, he told The Journal, “75% or more of the proceeds will be used to bring our employees back to work with the balance to be used to pay utilities, rent, and debt service to lenders.”

Bennett himself is a prolific donor, having given more than $1.1 million to Trump and the Republican Party since the 2016 campaign cycle, according to Federal Election Commission records. On March 7, as talks of a massive federal bailout began to take shape, Bennett gave $50,000 to the Trump campaign’s main fundraising committee, Trump Victory. 

The same month he hired Miller and Bailey, Bennett publicly urged the White House to bail out his industry in a series of posts on Medium. A March 22 post called “What’s wrong with America?” bemoaned the timidity of politicians who hesitate to hand taxpayer dollars to struggling companies without assurances that they wouldn’t simply line shareholders’ pockets.

“Politicians are so terrified from appearing to help big businesses or companies that somehow make a profit that they put restrictions on aid that are onerous and counterproductive — sometimes even rendering the aid unusable,” Bennett wrote. “We should not be disqualified from assistance because we built our previously small businesses into bigger businesses. That’s how we manage to put more Americans to work.”

However, in an apparent reversal, the Treasury Department demanded on Thursday afternoon that publicly traded companies, including three under Bennett’s name, surrender the loaned funds by May 7, so that small businesses may access them. But last Saturday, a few days after Treasury announced it’s new rule, Bennett announced that he would be keeping the money unless forced to give it back. 

“We plan to keep all funds received under the PPP, which were provided as a result of the application process and other specific requirements established for our industry by Congress,” Bennett’s company, Ashford Hospitality Trust, wrote in a statement posted to its website. “Rules established by the Small Business Administration require companies like ours to determine by May 7 whether we still qualify for the PPP funds. Any funds for which we are determined to be not qualified will be returned according to the requirements of the program.”

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