Tsongas' record as a lobbyist comes under scrutiny

February 29, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Staff Writer

As a lobbyist, he was a $300-an-hour-and-up hired gun for both a hazardous waste dumper and an air polluter. He also helped win fast-track approval of a natural gas pipeline project that has since stirred up allegations of 136 violations of environmental rules.

As a member of corporate boards, he has presided over thousands of employee layoffs by a high-tech manufacturer and the paying of $3 million in executive bonuses by a public utility.

He is Paul E. Tsongas, the apparent front-runner among Democrats in Maryland's presidential primary, and you can expect to hear more about the items cited above if he continues to win support from voters around the country.

"He hasn't been considered a major candidate until recently, but give them [his opponents] time," said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist.

Not even Mr. Tsongas' opponents say he is to blame for the dumped waste, polluted air or broken rules cited above. Nor are they likely to mention that he also lobbied for such do-gooder groups as the Sierra Club and the Humane Society. And nobody says he could have prevented either the layoffs or the bonuses just by being a board member.

But for starters, simply having been a lobbyist may hurt him in the long run. Opponents have already hinted as much, and, as Mr. Sabato said, "The word 'lobbyist' has become one of the seven dirty words of politics, so he undoubtedly will be colored by it."

Considered in the best light, Mr. Tsongas' business connections are a plus. Most of the time he lobbied for positions he personally agreed with, such as tax breaks for capital gains, which he supported for the National Venture Capital Association during the tax reform fight in Congress in 1986. The same issue is now at the heart of his plan for economic recovery.

He says his business ties give him an insight the other Democrats lack when it comes to knowing how to lead the nation's economic recovery.

But insight wasn't what Mr. Tsongas was seeking when he began his business career in 1985 as a lawyer-lobbyist with the Boston law firm of Foley, Hoag & Eliot. He bluntly admits he was seeking to make a quick buck -- or several hundred thousand of them.

He had quit his seat in the U.S. Senate a year earlier to fight a life-or-death battle with cancer, and he says that winning the struggle left him with a sense of urgency to make his family financially secure.

The record shows that he succeeded. Last year he reported an income of about $335,000 in law-firm fees, director's fees and investment gains, and his boosted earnings have helped him build a stock and bond portfolio worth at least $742,000, and a personal net worth of more than $1.2 million, according to an analysis by the New York Times.

As a former senator returning to the halls of government to build his wealth, he was a willing user of Washington's revolving door, a custom cited by public interest groups as yet another eroding force on the ethics of government.

And along the way, some of the companies he represented or helped lead did things which, fairly or not, may not reflect well on Mr. Tsongas as the campaign heats up.

Take the case of the Iroquois Pipeline, for example.

According to congressional lobbying records, Mr. Tsongas made about $107,000 lobbying for congressional and regulatory approval of the project -- a 364-mile pipeline to carry natural gas from Canada to New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. Mr. Tsongas says he personally favored the project, which he has called "a model" of its kind, and he cites the clean-burning energy of natural gas.

But towns along the pipeline route in Connecticut were upset about the project's 100-foot-wide right-of-way, and a study done for the state concluded that it would be cheaper for consumers if gas were brought to the state in other ways.

Congress not only approved the pipeline but allowed builders to bypass some of the public hearings normally required for such projects, and then construction began.

Last week, the New York Public Service Commission sued the builders for $26.3 million, alleging 136 environmental violations.

Another of Mr. Tsongas' former lobbying clients, Northeast Solvents Recovery of North Andover, Mass., handles hazardous waste from several Massachusetts municipalities. The company has transported much of its hazardous waste -- up to 2,000 tons per year -- to Marine Shale Processors, a Louisiana incinerator that has been fined more than $5 million for repeated instances of letting toxic materials into the ground, the air and the water.

Mr. Tsongas earned about $7,600 from the firm by helping lobby for a minor clerical change on the company's behalf in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Also cited for a poor environmental record among Mr. Tsongas' clients has been the Norton Co., a Massachusetts firm that spews into the air chemicals that contribute to the destruction of the Earth's protective layer of ozone. Mr. Tsongas helped the company fend off an unfriendly takeover bid.

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