KeyArena in Seattle, shown Oct. 27. The deadline for proposals to renovate the arena is Wednesday. (Erika Schultz/The Seattle Times)
Ten days before a crucial vote on a Sodo District arena last May, a top Port of Seattle lobbyist got some impromptu time with the politician many suspected could swing the result.
In the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., airport last April 22, Port lobbyist Eric Ffitch ran into Seattle City Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who would cast the decisive vote in a 5-4 council decision May 2 against the Sodo project pitched by Chris Hansen.
With a Wednesday deadline set for proposals to renovate KeyArena – in direct competition with a since-revised Sodo project – the role of lobbyists and paid consultants in Seattle’s arena debate has emerged front and center. Not only has the Port lobbied government officials as a Sodo-project opponent, but Hansen himself has paid lobbyists tens of thousands of dollars to push his plan while KeyArena renovation bidders Anschutz Entertainment Group and Oak View Group are also hiring companies and individuals to sway opinion.
And as the three-group arena race heats up, the battle of lobbyists and consultants is expected to intensify and compete for support from a public not always attuned to just how much gets quietly spent securing these sports megadeals.
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Whether it’s worth spending the lobby money remains up for debate. After all, only one group will emerge victorious.
Also, timing can be everything in the lobby game. For instance, Gonzalez says Ffitch getting her one-on-one didn’t mean much. She had already spoken with Port Commissioner John Creighton, part of the Seattle delegation to Miami, at a cocktail reception the first night of the trip.
Gonzalez had been on a Seattle Chamber of Commerce exchange to tour Port of Miami facilities and says she had already been lobbied to the hilt for months on the arena issue when Ffitch approached her before the group’s flight home.
“He happened to see me at the Fort Lauderdale Airport … and approached me, but we didn’t have any substantive conversation,” Gonzalez said this week, adding she had already met Ffitch, who was at the airport with other Port officials on the trip, once before. “We just focused on niceties.”
Indeed, a follow-up email by Ffitch, who did not respond to requests for comment, to Gonzalez — obtained by The Seattle Times in a public-records request — didn’t suggest they had discussed anything substantial. Ffitch wrote: “it was a privilege to learn more about your background in the informal setting of the Fort Lauderdale airport. Despite my role with the Port being focused on Olympia and the state legislature, I am sure we will have occasion to work together.”
By that point, she had spent six months hearing from lobbyists, consultants and officials on both sides of the Sodo debate and doubts Ffitch or Creighton could have influenced her additionally had they tried.
“Certainly towards the tail end, I’d heard about every angle I could possibly hear related to those who were in favor and those who were opposed,’’ Gonzalez said.
Much focus up to now has been on the Port’s lobby efforts opposing the Sodo plan. It was revealed in January the Port could spend up to $185,000 on a three-year deal with Ceis Bayne East — also known as CBE Strategic — for consulting on industrial-lands issues, including a campaign to support a KeyArena renovation.
While some question whether public money should be used to support one private-arena venture over another, the Port isn’t the only entity spending thousands monthly to influence public officials.
Hansen’s two prime lobbyists for his Sodo project are Rollin Fatland — long a Seattle political fixture — and Lynn Claudon, wife of former Seattle Mayor Charles Royer. Public disclosures show Hansen paid Claudon $27,000 and Fatland $12,000 for lobbyist services in the first quarter of 2016 before last May’s city-council vote on selling part of Occidental Avenue South to the Sodo-project group.
That amounted to $9,000 per month for Claudon and $4,000 monthly for Fatland.
It should be mentioned, CBE’s $5,000-per-month Port contract doesn’t require registering for lobbying activities.
And the Port isn’t the only anti-Sodo group paying for influence.
Records show the Mariners paid their former legal counsel, Bart Waldman, $4,623.92 early last year to oppose the Occidental street-vacation request by Hansen. George Allen, another registered lobbyist, received $3,600 from the Mariners for monitoring the work of city officials before the street-vacation vote.
And the money disclosed in public might be only a fraction of what’s being spent.
Lobbyists must register only when campaigning for or against specific legislation. In the city’s arena saga, all groups are employing people for lobbyist-type work without them necessarily having to register. In Hansen’s case, Fatland and Claudon continue to work on undisclosed private deals despite having declared no registered lobbying income in nearly a year.
AEG hired Nyhus Communications to handle local PR and is paying one of their employees, Katherine Fountain Mackinnon, to lobby city officials on their KeyArena plans. She was paid $1,251.25 last year for lobbying and has yet to file disclosures this year. It is not known how much the remainder of the private contract between AEG and Nyhus is worth.
Aaron Pickus, hired through Nyhus, is AEG’s main arena spokesman in Seattle but not registered for lobbying. Pickus used to serve as spokesman for former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn.
As for the Oak View Group, spearheaded by Tim Leiweke and Irving Azoff, it does not appear to have hired registered lobbyists. But the firm is paying Steven Gottlieb to handle local communications for its Seattle representative, Lance Lopes.
Gottlieb on his LinkedIn profile says his company, Gottlieb Communications, allows individuals and firms to “extend awareness and manage their reputation through measurable thought leadership and influencer programs.”
Lopes is a former Seahawks lobbyist, but not registered for such work on behalf of OVG. Still, Gonzalez confirmed she has already met with Lopes at her office. Gonzalez insisted Lopes did not pitch specifics of OVG’s arena plans and only discussed what the relatively new company — founded in late 2015 — is about.
Gonzalez also met members of Hansen’s investment group — including Hansen, Wally Walker and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson — in January for the first time. Gonzalez said she had previously met with Fatland and Claudon in January 2016, four months before the Sodo vote.
Fatland made waves in the upcoming three-group PR battle by making a January public-records request to the Port for information about its CBE consulting deal. That resulted in the CBE contract being posted on the Port’s website and was followed by media commentary about it on local television and radio.
Port spokesman Peter McGraw confirmed the only independent media records request on anything CBE-related has been by Andrew McIntosh of the Puget Sound Business Journal. McIntosh, who covers the Port daily, followed up with a more detailed story about the CBE contract late last month.
Other than that, prior media commentary on the CBE deal appears generated solely off the work of Fatland. Which means, much like Ffitch chatting up Gonzalez at the airport, OVG rep Lopes paying her an office visit, or AEG lobbyist Mackinnon earning her keep, Fatland was doing exactly what he’s paid to — trying to influence opinion.