Transit Panel Faced a Jam of Lobbyists
The high-stakes decision Wednesday to award a $121-million contract for the Metro Green Line trolley cars followed months of intense lobbying by the two finalists, their subcontractors and a cast of high-profile and high-paid advocates.
Although both sides’ key strategists worked behind the scenes, their campaigns shaped the debate that ultimately won Sumitomo Corp. of America the contract to build 41 high-tech driverless trolley cars.
Sumitomo’s handlers aggressively touted the Japanese-owned company’s edge in technology and experience (Sumitomo built the Metro Blue Line cars), while the Morrison Knudsen Corp. team pushed the Idaho company’s commitment to “buy American” (66% of its work would have gone to U.S. firms, compared to 22% for Sumitomo).
In the end, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission opted for experience over nationalism. But the effectiveness of the two strategies was not lost on Commissioner James L. Tolbert, who in a moment of frustration proposed that the bids be combined. Tolbert ultimately abstained from the vote.
“We have never had this much hot and heavy lobbying,” said Commissioner Jackie Bacharach, who voted for Sumitomo only after declaring that her “heart” wanted to vote for Morrison Knudsen.
Commission Chairman Ray Grabinski compared the lobbyists’ onslaught to the Cold War.
“It is like a missile crisis,” Grabinski said. “You hire five lobbyists, I will hire seven. Pretty soon the (meeting room) won’t be big enough.”
Unlike comparable campaigns at the state Capitol or City Hall, however, it has been virtually impossible to track the two sides’ maneuvering or the extent of their lobbying efforts because the commission has no rules governing lobbyists.
There is no requirement that lobbyists identify their clients, disclose the purpose of their lobbying, or even register the names of their firms. Under state law, commissioners must disclose gifts and campaign contributions that they receive, but they do so only once a year, a commission spokeswoman said.
The lack of regulation, some commissioners complain, has resulted in a free-for-all in which they are assaulted with letters, faxes, phone calls and visits from an assortment of vested interests.
“I got a letter from one attorney, and I still don’t even know who he is,” Bacharach said.
The hired guns for Sumitomo included former Gov. George Deukmejian, now a Century City lawyer; consultant-lobbyist Fran Savitch, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley; city parks Commissioner Dominick Rubalcava, a Bradley appointee, and consultant Barna Szabo, a former aide to Deane Dana who served 14 years on the Transportation Commission.
On the other side, lobbyist Maureen Kindel, a former city public works commissioner and Bradley’s leading political fund-raiser, was joined by attorney George Kieffer, of the prominent Democratic firm of Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg & Phillips, and Peter Ueberroth, who led the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics and is a Morrison Knudsen director.
Because of the technical complexities and political sensitivities of the Green Line contract, both bidders put together diverse teams of lobbyists and specialists capable of addressing issues from the scientific to the philosophical.
“What was basically a very difficult technical contract (became) a very difficult political contract,” Szabo said. “Every month it was a different issue. . . . You can’t lobby at this level unless you know some technical information. You have the pure political lobbyists, then you have the guys who are policy guys, then the guys who are the engineers.”
The Green Line contract, nearly double the contract awarded several years ago for the Blue Line trolley cars, had been in jeopardy since October, when questions surfaced about whether a driverless trolley system was practical. At that time, Sumitomo and Morrison Knudsen teamed up to persuade the commission to maintain the high-tech option rather than reopen the bidding for a more traditional trolley car.
By Wednesday, the teamwork was clearly over. Szabo and others from Sumitomo huddled near the rear of the cavernous Hall of Administration hearing room, while their counterparts for Morrison Knudsen occupied a corner near the front. Both sides sank in their chairs when the commission reconsidered--once again--its decision to build driverless trolley cars, but that kinship of circumstance quickly disappeared when the debate shifted to the merits of the two companies’ bids.
At the end of the three-hour hearing, Kindel and Kieffer denied to reporters that they had been outhustled and outmaneuvered by their opponents, while Morrison Knudsen CEO William Agee angrily accused the commission of stacking the cards against him. Across the room, Savitch and others from Sumitomo embraced.