Private Sector Lobbying For Guam In U.S. Congress Nothing New

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$1.6 million reportedly spent by retailer since 2008

By Brett Kelman

HAGÅTÑA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, May 23, 2012) – Although controversy churns over the lobbying efforts of a new buildup group, other Guam businesses have spent more than $2 million to lobby Congress in recent years.

The biggest spender by far is DFS Guam, which has paid more than $1.6 million to lobby for increased tourism from China since 2008, according to documents filed with the U.S. Senate.

The local luxury retailer once hired one of the most profitable lobbying firms in the nation, and has already spent $120,000 in 2012 alone, the Senate documents show.

Other big spenders include the Guam Shipyard -- which has spent more than $900,000 since 1999 to lobby for ship repairs and maritime issues -- and the University of Guam Foundation, which has spent more than $120,000 to push for higher appropriations for education, according to the Senate documents.

Even the local government has hired lobbyists, although no agency has done so since about 2004. In total, about $4.3 million has been spent on Guam lobbying since 1998.

The island's newest lobbying effort comes from the Guam United States Asia Security Alliance, which was formed in February to bring a pro-buildup message to Congress.

The alliance was founded by three local businessmen and has been active for several months. Carl Peterson, an advocate for the group, asked the Guam Hotel and Restaurant Association to make donations to help the group pay its lobby firm, K&L Gates, which costs about $20,000 a month.

This public request for support drew criticism from Democratic Sen. Rory Respicio, which in turn drew criticism from Gov. Eddie Calvo.

Respicio, the legislative majority leader, said yesterday that he was concerned the efforts of the Guam United States Asia Security Alliance would drown out the voice of local politicians, and that the businessmen behind the group had shown a "lack of respect" for the local government.

In response, Calvo warned lawmakers not to attempt to stifle or regulate free speech, and specifically thanked the businessmen for digging into their own pockets on Guam's behalf.

Gerry Perez, one of the three founders of the alliance and a former general manager of the Guam Visitors Bureau, is set to return to Washington, D.C., in June to speak to Congress. The group already has met with more than 20 lawmakers on buildup issues.

But the Guam U.S. Asia Security Alliance isn't the only local group that has paid to bring a buildup message to Congress.

Senate documents show that Younex Enterprises Corp., which is building a large worker housing facility in Dededo, spent about $200,000 in 2010 so lobbyists would help them push Congress to spend more military money on Guam.

When asked yesterday about the Younex efforts, Respicio said he was still concerned that individualized lobbying could allow different groups to bring conflicting messages to Congress, creating a muddled opinion about Guam's desires.

For example, if another group that opposes the buildup were to lobby, it could speak to the same lawmakers as the pro-buildup businessmen or Younex, and then Congress wouldn't know the true stance of the island, Respicio said.

It would be much more effective if, instead of spending money on lobbyists, these special interest groups instead brought their perspectives to the Guam First Commission, which is a government advisory board intended to create a single voice on buildup matters, Respicio said.

"It cannot be every man for himself," Respicio said. "You can't say, 'I want to have a buildup at all cost,' and then another group comes to Congress and is saying, 'We need help with our infrastructure and our hospital.' Although we may not all be in agreement, the commission would be able to take a single position and show how this military buildup should be approached."

The commission was created by the Guam Legislature years ago but sat dormant until recently, when Calvo transformed the group into an advisory council. It held its first meeting earlier this year.

However, in the wake of Respicio's statements, acting Gov. Ray Tenorio issued a public address yesterday stating that no one "answered to the Legislature" and that it was completely appropriate for local residents and business to speak directly to Congress.

"This notion that private citizens have to get permission from their government to speak is far worse than ludicrous, it is the stuff that dictatorships are made of and is criminal," Tenorio said.

Visa waiver

Although most of the recent controversy over lobbying is about buildup issues, the majority of the money has been spent to promote tourism.

In the last five years, DFS Guam has spent more money on lobbyists than all other groups combined. The Senate documents show that DFS Guam has spent this money in an effort to influence federal laws that could help unlock a China visa waiver for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana islands, and possibly, Guam.

DFS Guam also has stores in Saipan, so a waiver on either island could boost the company's business.

DFS Guam has hired two lobbying firms -- Barbour Griffin & Rogers, in 2008 and 2009, and Polaris Government Relations, from 2010 until now -- according to the documents.

Barbour Griffin & Rogers is the eleventh largest lobbying firm in the country, earning more than $139 million in lobbying fees since 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

A visa waiver with China would be expected to invigorate the island's tourism industry by making it easier for travelers to visit Guam from one of the world's most vibrant economies.

Currently, Chinese tourists have to go through a lengthy, sometimes complicated visa process before they are admitted to American soil, but the waiver would ease regulations and encourage tourism, much like what has happened with Russian tourists this year.

Because of this great potential, pursuit of a China visa waiver is often a priority for local leaders. For example, the governor sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week, asking for such a waiver. All three candidates for Guam's delegate have promised to prioritize the waiver issue.

However, in the address released yesterday, Tenorio said the tourism industry had exerted the "greatest energy" in pursuit of a waiver.

"Why? Because, like those survivors and people working in tourism, they all want to see a better life for the people of our island," Tenorio said.

Respicio said yesterday he felt the pursuit of the visa waiver could also be better coordinated through the Guam First Commission. He was concerned that pro-buildup lobbyists might portray China as a threat, conflicting with pro-tourism lobbyists who painted China as an opportunity.

"A coordinated message could have resulted in a positive outcome for both initiatives," Respicio said.

UOG

Not all the lobbying spending is controversial.

The UOG Foundation money has bought the services of Van Socyoc Associates, which is a lobbying firm that specializing in getting grant funding for universities. The firm has given UOG a "competitive edge," and the resulting grant funding has been well worth the investment of the foundation, said executive director Mark Mendiola.

With the exception of the UOG Foundation, none of the companies that have hired lobbyists in the past five years could be reached for comment on their spending. DFS Guam, Younex and the UOG Endowment Foundation didn't respond to requests for comment. Guam Shipyard was unable to comment because its president was unavailable.

Although these groups are required to file documentation on their spending with the Senate, the lobbying records don't include detailed descriptions of the purpose of the lobbying. In general, only a few vague words are used to explain the goal of the spending.

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