Fabiani and Lehane: Political Attack Dogs to Corporate Counselors
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Holmes Report

Fabiani and Lehane: Political Attack Dogs to Corporate Counselors

Lehane and Fabiani are not the first campaign consultants to attempt to parlay a reputation in the political realm into a solid corporate business. But they have made quite a name for themselves in a surprisingly short time,

Paul Holmes

In 1996, Bill Clinton was enjoying a healthy lead in the polls over Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole when a federal jury in Little Rock convicted three of the president’s friends on fraud charges related to the Whitewater real estate deal. There was concern that special prosecutor Ken Starr would put pressure on the three to testify against the Clintons, that the media would focus on the scandal as a means of making the presidential race seem closer than it was. In the words of White House press secretary Mike McCurry, questions about Whitewater were “polluting” daily briefings in the pressroom.
McCurry and White House counsel Harold Ickes created a special office to deal with Whitewater questions, sealed off from the day-to-day business of the administration. To handle public relations, Ickes called on Mark Fabiani, who as chief of staff to Tom Bradley had defended the Los Angeles mayor against a variety of ethics charges. Fabiani was joined by deputy and fellow Harvard law graduate Chris Lehane, who dubbed their office—located as far from the West Wing as possible—the “arsenal of democracy” and took to describing Fabiani and himself as “the masters of disaster.”
It was a soubriquet that stuck with Lehane and Fabiani as they continued to work together, first on Al Gore’s bid for the presidency, and more recently for a series of corporate clients, as they attempt to parlay their crisis management experience into a corporate public relations business. It was the headline on a column last year by Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz and on a story last week announcing their appointment by Simon Marketing, the firm at the center of the controversy over the manipulation of McDonald’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” contest.
Lehane and Fabiani are not the first campaign consultants to attempt to parlay a reputation in the political realm into a solid corporate business—David Sawyer blazed that trail with Sawyer Miller Group, perhaps the first to use the techniques of the political campaign on behalf of corporate clients. But they have made quite a name for themselves in a surprisingly short time, applying the same “take no prisoners” approach that distinguished their work for Clinton and Gore to corporate clients such as Critical Path and Southern California Edison—and attracting their share of controversy along the way.
To douse media interest in the Whitewater story, Fabiani and Lehane adopted a seemingly counterintuitive strategy, drowning reporters in information. In the past, White House aides had withheld the vast majority of documents pertaining to the scandal. Now, Fabiani and Lehane bombarded the media with document: testimony, phone and beeper logs, examples of GOP inaccuracies. As Fabiani later told reporters, ““When we first set up shop, it was like the Gold Rush. We’d tell reporters we had something to show them, and they’d come flying over here like we were giving out free samples. Now when we call to show them something, you hear this ‘Uh ... I’m pretty busy today.’”
Nevertheless, the approach earned plaudits from even the president’s critics. Fabiani “would answer my questions without misleading me, make documents available, and didn't seem to hold my newspaper against me,” according to Jerry Seper, a reporter with the conservative Washington Times. Chris Vlasto, an investigative producer with ABC News, said Fabiani “is one of the only White House officials I’d like to go out and have a drink with.”
The two defended the Clintons, but they also went on the attack against the “real villains” in the case, Alfornse D’Amato and Ken Starr, the architects of an anti-Clinton scandal machine. When a book by a former FBI agent detailed tales of gay group sex in the White House showers, sex and drug paraphernalia hung from the White House Christmas tree, and presidential trysts, Fabiani and Lehane were called on to discredit it. They found links between the author and the Dole campaign, and within 72 hours a damaging attack on the Clinton administration book became an embarrassment to the GOP.
That triumph was followed closely by controversy, however. In January 1997, The Wall Street Journal revealed the existence of a 300-page report, written two years earlier, alleging that the Clintons had been victimized by a “right wing conspiracy industry.” The author of the memo that accompanied the report was Chris Lehane. He detailed how a cabal of right-wing extremists had figured out how “fantasy can become fact” feeding rumors through a “media food chain” that begins with small ideological journals and ultimately finds its way onto the front pages of mainstream U.S. newspapers.
The memo promoted derision. “This is paranoia at the highest level of government,” said Fred Barnes, an editor at the conservative Weekly Standard magazine and a former White House reporter. The memo was “a bit sophomoric,” added C. Boyden Gray, who was White House counsel in the first Bush administration. “I think that happens to many White Houses,” he said. “But I don’t think any of us would have put that much pen to paper.”
By then, both Fabiani and Lehane were out of the White House. Fabiani had moved back to La Jolla, where he was contacted in the fall of 1999 by Gore campaign manager Tony Coelho. At first he was reluctant to get back into the political fray, and after he joined the campaign he reportedly considered quitting because of Coelho’s heavy hand and Gore’s reluctance to sit down face-to-face with reporters. To put a human face on the candidate—who was considered more competent but less likable than his GOP rival—they suggested a pop culture blitz, including appearances with Leno, Letterman, Imus, and Oprah.
(Lehane also became the campaign’s unofficial practical joker. Paul Cusack, Gore’s personal aide, arrived at his hotel one night to discover that all the furniture had been removed from his room. Lehane had called the hotel impersonating Cusack and demanded that his room be completely cleared out before he arrived. Lehane stashed a telephone directory in the luggage of political director Maurice Daniel, who carried it around for days, and slipped a zucchini into senior adviser Michael Feldman’s briefcase. He was responsible for helping Gore “lighten up,” a mission that was never entirely successful.)
In a memo to Carter Eskew, the former BSMG Worldwide public affairs chief who was Gore’s chief strategist, they warned that the campaign had yet to “formulate a one-sentence description of Bush and Gore that can carry us all the way through to the general election.” The Bush campaign had fixed on its mantra, that Gore would say or do anything to get elected. “This description is effective because it encapsulates the core criticism of Gore in a single, easily-repeated sentence.”
They had their own mantra: “Does George Bush Jr. have what it takes to get the job done?” They felt it would turn a perceived weakness—Gore’s stiffness, his determination—into an asset. But others in the campaign wanted to stick with the vice president’s populist theme, “for the people, not the powerful.” After Lehane raised the question of Bush’s inexperience in a New York Times interview, Fabiani told him that others in the campaign believed he had gone too far.
Eventually, the Gore campaign did begin to chip away at Bush’s inexperience and occasional incoherence—particularly on foreign policy and economic issues—using vice presidential candidate Joseph Leibermann as a surrogate so Gore would not have to make the attacks themselves. Fabiani accused the Texas governor of “babbling,” again prompting an apology from the candidate. Lehane cracked that a pile of Bush budget documents looked very heavy “for a lightweight.” But it was too little too late. Although Gore would win the popular vote, it would end election night needing a victory in hotly contested Florida to win the electoral college. But the first count gave Bush a slight edge in Florida, despite what appeared to be many irregularities in the voting.
With the election hanging in the balance, Fabiani and Lehane set out to discredit Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, whose position as co-chairman of Bush’s campaign in Florida raised questions about whether she could be impartial in adjudicating which of the contested ballots should be counted. The two started e-mailing information about Harris to the media. She was “an obvious political crony,” said Fabiani. She was acting like a “Soviet commissar,” said Lehane—a crack that prompted Gore to vow that his staff would “refrain from using inflammatory language” while the recount continued.
But the approach that had worked for Fabiani and Lehane in the political realm was not so effective now that the campaign was to be decided in the legal arena. “In the end,” said Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, “they bumped up against the limits of spin.”
According to Kurtz, who covered the post-election campaign in detail, “The vice president’s operation was built on the belief that in a lightning-quick media world, almost nothing was more important than ‘winning’ the news cycle. And that, quite often, was what the campaign did, grabbing a precious minute on the evening news or a few coveted above-the-fold inches on the front page. But what was the payoff? Some days those stories reverberated through the media echo chamber; on others they simply vanished into the ether.”
In the process, Fabiani and Lehane became the story—not for the first time and not for the last. They earned the undying hatred of Clinton’s critics—anti-Clinton websites are replete with vituperative comments about the duo’s tactics—and the criticism of some Clinton supporters. Says one prominent Democrat, now heading the Washington office of an international public relations firm, “They were great damage control guys when they were in the White House, but they were not good campaign managers. I think they’re terrific when it come to managing the news cycle, but they seemed less comfortable managing a long-term strategy.”
That raised some questions about their next move, which was to open their own consulting firm, targeting corporate clients. Some observers expressed surprise that the two were going into business for themselves. An item in the conservative National Review suggested that “if Fabiani and Lehane were Republicans… The New York Times would smell a rat. Think about it: Presidential candidate spends campaign attacking corporations, top flacks hang out shingle offering protection from the administration when it’s in power.”
Fabiani built a successful corporate practice quietly, and joined forces with Lehane to win their first high-profile corporate assignment together in February, when they were called in by the beleaguered Internet company Critical Path. The San Francisco-based e-mail outsourcer needed crisis management counsel in the wake of accounting controversy—the company was forced to restate its fourth-quarter results, cutting revenue by $6.5 million to $8 million—an investor lawsuit and management restructuring.
It was their next big win that put Lehane and Fabiani back in the spotlight, however. In May, California Governor Gray Davis hired their firm to help him develop a communications strategy for the state’s energy crisis. The hiring came shortly after Vice President Dick Cheney launched a blistering attack on California, deriding the conservation ethic that has driven the state’s energy policy for the past decade. To no one’s surprise, the two quickly went on the offensive.
“The governor has a plan in place to deal with the energy issue in this state,” Lehane told reporters. “The key right now is to communicate that plan to the people of California and take on the out-of-state energy companies—many are from Texas, which happens to be the home state of our president—that are really price-gouging.”
The reaction from California Republicans was swift and predictable and not for the first time Fabiani and Lehane became a part of the image problem they had been hired to address. Senate GOP leader Jim Brutle labeled the two consultants as “cut throat” and denounced “the hiring of political hacks on government payroll…. These are political opposition research attack dogs. If the governor wants them, he ought to pay for them with his $30-million political war chest.” Assembly Republican leader Dave Cox complained in a letter that the hiring “undermines the assertions you have made both publicly and privately throughout this crisis.”
Lehane responded in characteristic fashion. “The Republicans,” he told reporters, “ought to be spending time writing letters to George W. Bush to get him to stop the Texas generators from gouging California…. That is the real issue here.” Davis, meanwhile, went on the offensive against the oil industry, and by implication, Bush and Cheney. He attacked the president during his visit to California, announced that the state was “at war with greedy power generators from Texas” and told the Los Angeles Times “If you don't have leverage over these cowboys, they will steal you blind.”
The strategy worked—at least in the short term. Davis’s poll ratings began to climb. Fabiani and Lehane earned a back-handed complement from political consultant Dan Schnur, who served as chief spokesman for former governor Pete Wilson and was a senior spokesman for Senator John McCain’s presidential bid. Said Schnur, “They are two of the best in the business. If I had a problem I couldn’t handle substantively, I’d want them—because they could help me spin my way of out it.”
Unfortunately, the familiar pattern repeated itself. Fabiani and Lehane again became a major part of the story after a controversy focused on the fact that they were working for troubled utility Southern California Edison at the same time they were advising Davis—a fact they had disclosed from the outset.
Lewis Uhler, president of the National Tax Limitation Committee, filed a lawsuit alleging that state conflict of interest laws had been violated, the state controller announced she would not pay the consultants’ fees, and the Securities & Exchange Commission launched an investigation into whether outside consultants—Lehane and Fabiani were not among them—had used inside knowledge to profit in the shares of energy companies that do business with California.
Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio praised the two, saying they were instrumental in persuading the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to limit the wholesale cost of power in the state. “Chris Lehane provided an invaluable service to the people of California in helping us get action after a yearlong wait from FERC,” Maviglio told reporters. “It’s a shame that politics gets in the way of public service.” But the controversy proved too much of a destruction and eventually the two decided they could no longer work for the governor, and that they would not accept any money for their efforts.
Now Fabiani and Lehane are working for Simon Marketing, after an employee of the promotions firm was among eight people arrested for defrauding McDonald’s by fixing its popular Monopoly and “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” games. Simon’s share price dropped by about 80 percent on news of its troubles, and major clients including Philip Morris and Kraft Foods announced they were moving their business elsewhere.
Simon quickly announced that it was cooperating with the Justice Department’s investigation of the case, and issued a press release quoting assistant United States attorney Mark Devereaux, who said the Justice Department viewed “Simon as a victim of one rogue employee.” The company also announced plans to bring in international law firm O’Melveny & Myers to conduct an independent review of the facts concerning the games administered by the company.
Says Simon Worldwide chief executive Allan Brown, “Upon learning of this situation for the first time, we made a firm commitment to getting all the facts. To help fulfill our commitment, we worked as quickly as possible to retain O’Melveny & Myers to conduct the review of the situation by having a member of our board reach out personally to Warren Christopher, a senior partner at O’Melveny and a man of impeccable credentials. O'Melveny's charge is very simple: Determine the facts and get to the truth.”
With no obvious high-profile villain to attack, the Simon case provides an opportunity for Fabiani and Lehane to demonstrate that they are not, as one public affairs executive suggests, “one trick ponies” and that they can defend corporate reputations as successfully—and as strategically—as they have attacked some political reputations. So far, they are making all the right moves.
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