WASHINGTON — In June 2011, Zane Kessler left his job as an aide to U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). Last month, Kessler became the executive director of an environmental group that opposes oil and natural gas development on federal lands in the Thompson Divide, a vast undeveloped region near Aspen. Last week, Bennet, who had held public meetings with both opponents and supporters of new leases on the land, proposed legislation to stop issuing new oil leases on the Thompson Divide.
Kessler waited a year from the time he left Bennet’s office until he took his new job as head of the environmentalist group. The delay followed Senate ethical guidelines, which prohibit former senior-level staffers from lobbying their former boss and coworkers for one year.
Yet government watchdogs raise their eyebrows when former congressional aides like Kessler pocket the equivalent of a three-cushion shot: they quit their jobs with a U.S. senator or representative, take a job as the head of an interest group or a corporate lobbying group, and successfully lobby their former boss to sponsor or vote for a piece of legislation that benefits their new employer’s agenda.
Joe Newman, director of communications for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based organization, did not comment on the relationship between Kessler and Bennet. But he said the so-called revolving door between Congress and lobbying organizations can jeopardize the public interest in two ways.
“Our problem is with lobbyists currying favor with aides who are still on staff. They know a job is waiting for them. That can have a corrupting effect if they know a lobbyist will hire them,” he said, citing disgraced former lobbyist Jack Abramoff as an example.
Abramoff, who called the revolving door “one of the greatest sources of corruption in government,” said he hired congressional staffers to influence their former boss to support his clients.
Newman also said the revolving door drives a wedge between ordinary citizens and elected officials.
“Once (former staffers) go through the revolving door, they have a lot of access that people on Main Street don’t have. A former staffer can call a senator directly or his former coworkers who he used to socialize with. That puts a leg up for them,” Newman said.
Kessler’s route through the revolving door shows that former congressional aides wield more clout than ordinary citizens. At stake is the future of oil and natural gas development on the Thompson Divide, a 221,000-acre piece of land located mostly in Pitkin, Gunnison, and Garfield counties on the Western slope.
Kessler was unavailable for comment.
Based on his profile on LinkedIn, Kessler has a longstanding interest in environmental causes. He studied political science, history, and natural resources as an undergraduate at Colorado State University from 2000 to 2005 and earned a graduate certificate in environmental affairs there in 2006.
After working as a community liaison to Sen. Ken Salazar, Kessler got a new job with his successor, Bennet. Working in Bennet’s Denver office, Kessler served as his state energy liaison and grants director from January 2009 to June 2011.
Kessler did not work on the Thompson Divide leases, but “would have been aware of the broader issues related to the Thompson Divide,” Bennet spokesman Ryan Johnson wrote in an email.
Kessler’s portfolio in Bennet’s office included natural resources and agriculture.
According to Johnson, Kessler did not lobby Bennet personally, but “reached out to staff about the Thompson Divide.”
Kessler’s lobbying succeeded.
Although Bennet is known as a reliable ally of environmental interests and had asked the Bureau of Land Management to allow the public more time to comment on approving new gas leases on 32,000 acres of public land in the Thompson Divide, as late as April he was neutral on the desirability of issuing new leases. “It would not be fair for me to lean on that,” he said according to a published report.
The Thompson Divide Coalition not only opposes the approval of new oil and gas leases on federal lands in the region, but also has negotiated with oil and gas companies to withdraw their existing leases.
The group’s mission is “to secure permanent protection from oil and gas development on federal lands” in the region, according to the coalition’s website.
Bennet’s draft bill does not go as far as the group seeks; on his website, the senator described it as a “middle-ground solution” between the interests of local residents, ranchers, and environmentalists with those of oil and natural gas companies and property-rights groups. Yet the organization did not express disappointment with Bennet’s draft bill.
A statement attributed to Kessler on the website urges viewers to contact the junior senator and reward him for sponsoring the proposed legislation.
“Michael Bennet has participated in multiple conversations with ranchers, business owners and leaseholders in an attempt to move this important issue forward. He’s posted a draft bill and maps on his website, but he wants your input!” Kessler wrote. “Thank the Senator for his attention and tell him why you support protecting the Thompson Divide.”
Newman, spokesman for the Project on Government Oversight, said the connection between the federal government and lobbying groups transcends ideology.
“We’ve had as many Democrats go through the revolving door as Republicans,” Newman said.
Newman’s outfit supports a permanent ban on lobbyists working for the government and former government employees working as lobbyists, but is not confident that the federal government will adopt such a prohibition even at a time when the public’s approval of Congress is at near-record lows.
“We would like to see the ban extended to Congress,” he concluded, “but they make the rules for themselves.”