The Story Of The Suicide Of A Powerful Lobbyist Threatens To Rock K Street

The death of a pioneer in black arts lobbying has Washington operatives pointing fingers and lawyering up.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

WASHINGTON ― On Thursday, July 9, 2015, Evan Morris, a super lobbyist with the biotech firm Genentech ― one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world ― texted with his wife, the mother of their two children, and headed to the exclusive Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Virginia, an elite club and course that hosts major tournaments and has been played by former President Barack Obama and Tiger Woods.

Morris bought the bar a round of drinks, running up an eye-popping tab. He then walked out to the club’s fire pit overlooking the lake. His wife, who had gotten an inkling of what he was about to do, frantically pleaded with him, texting him photos of their children. He shot himself in the head.

Local police and fire departments both say that they were dispatched to the scene just after 10 p.m. Four days later, a statement from Genentech appeared in Politico Influence, a newsletter targeting K Street. “We are deeply saddened by the passing ... During his time with Genentech and Roche, Evan made many important contributions to the company in support of the patients we serve,” the firm said, referring to Swiss pharmaceutical giant Hoffmann-La Roche, Genentech’s parent company. “Our thoughts are with Evan’s family and we ask that you respect their privacy at this time.” The funeral had been held the day before.

Washington, at least publicly, has respected the family’s privacy: Despite the fact that Morris, who was just 38, was one of the top lobbyists in the city ― he was the head of all government affairs at Genentech ― his death, until Monday, had not been mentioned beyond the blurb in the K Street newsletter and a one-line obituary on the website of the Jefferson Funeral Chapel that reads: “Resided in Alexandria, VA.” His life has largely been scraped from the internet and social media.

That changed when The Wall Street Journal’s Brody Mullins published an expose into what it describes as an affair that is “shaping up to be one of the biggest U.S. investigations into Washington’s influence business since the bribery and corruption case surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff rocked the nation’s capital in the mid-2000s.”

Evan Morris' obituary.
Evan Morris' obituary.

Genentech, for its part, continued to dig after Morris died. Prior to his death, the drug company had been probing what it identified as spending irregularities coming out of the Washington office Morris ran, according to people briefed by the firm on the investigation. Morris learned of the probe the week he died; that probe continued after his death, focusing on consulting firms that Morris directed money toward, the sources said. The company had noticed an unusually high amount of spending on Washington consultants, the sources said, and had questions about whether Morris was taking illicit payments in exchange for doling out contracts, or whether he himself was in control of some of the accounts where money was going.

Shortly after his death, The Huffington Post began investigating the circumstances surrounding it. In September 2015 and again in February 2016, a spokesman for Genentech declined to confirm or deny the allegations, citing personnel policy. On Monday, HuffPost reached back out in the wake of the Journal story and got a new statement.

We expect our employees at every level of the organization to operate with integrity, consistent with the law and with our internal policies and training.

In 2015 an internal investigation concluded that a senior vice president of the company had violated our policies and procedures, created schemes to misappropriate company funds for personal gain, and deliberately concealed his actions.

Based on information from our investigation, we immediately suspended the employee and began efforts to recover the misappropriated funds. Although we believe this was an isolated situation, we have put additional measures and controls in place to further protect against this type of misconduct in the future.

We remain deeply disappointed and saddened by these events.

In every industry where companies compete for contracts, there is always the temptation for those making the bids to offer to share some of the contract with the person making the decision. The ancient transaction is known as a kickback. In Washington, it’s customary for consultants to lavish financial decision-makers with dinners, and private boxes at concerts and ballgames, but cash payments are considered inappropriate.

“Genentech has told its consultants that they are not to speak to any reporters and that if they hear from any they should tell the reporter to call Genentech,” said one source whose firm does business with the company and was on the receiving end of Genentech inquiries about payments.

While sources told HuffPost that the Genentech investigation had found evidence of kickbacks, the Journal was able to review financial documents showing the flow of money from Genentech to clients, and then from clients back to Morris’ personal bank account.

According to lobbying disclosure records on file with the Senate, Genentech has cut ties with at least one lobbying firm ― CM Government Relations ― since Morris’ death. Public relations firms ― known in Washington as shadow lobbying organizations ― do not need to file public disclosure forms, so only the official lobbying firms could be tracked. An official at CM Government Relations referred HuffPost to Genentech for comment.

“As part of our standard business practices, we regularly evaluate our engagements with lobbyists and consultants,” a Genentech spokesperson told HuffPost in April 2016. “Currently, we are not working with CM Government Relations.”

Morris previously said his work with the pharmaceutical industry was inspired by his mother’s battle with cancer, and he became a major player in the Washington power scene. Beyond his family home purchased for $1.7 million in northern Virginia, he owned a condo in the exclusive Millennium Tower in San Francisco, where units go from $1 million to $9 million, and, until 2013, a home on the water on the Eastern Shore that he purchased for $3.1 million. A K Street source who dined with him ― for lunch ― at the lobbyist-favorite Tosca in the months before he died remembers him ordering a bottle of wine so expensive that the owner insisted on coming by the table to sample it. “He was at the top of the food chain,” he said of Morris.

Morris was a wine aficionado who could hang with some of the biggest spenders in the game. He chaired the 2015 Heart’s Delight wine tasting and auction for charity, a multiday affair of wine drinking and wine buying in Washington. That he could chair such an event at such a young age spoke not just to his wealth and lifestyle, but his meteoric rise.

He was also on the board of trustees of the James Beard Foundation, the kingmakers of the food world; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio put him on the committee, whose aim was to bring the Democratic National Convention to the city. (It lost to Philadelphia.)

In 2009, Genentech and Morris found themselves in the news when The New York Times reported that 12 members of Congress entered remarks into the Congressional Record that were written by Genentech’s lobbyists. Many of the members who reprinted Genentech’s statements as their own also received contributions from the company’s PAC and employees. Morris told the Times, “There was no connection between the contributions and the statements.”

Morris’ neighbors, like his colleagues on K Street, were stunned by the news of his death. The night before his suicide, Morris had held a big Democratic Party fundraiser at his home in his Alexandria, Virginia, neighborhood, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe stayed till late in the evening. The street leading to their house was lined with cars. A Democratic Party flag flew from their front porch.

A relative who answered the phone at Morris’ house said the family would decline comment for this story. “We love him and we miss him,” his father said when reached in New York, declining to comment further.

Morris had gotten his start in D.C. at 18 as a gopher in the Clinton White House. He told one trade publication that “he learned a lasting lesson from his boss, the deputy chief of staff.”

“Speak truth to power, no matter how powerful the individual or how ugly the truth,” he recalled the deputy chief of staff telling him. “At the end of the day, that’s how I want to be known.”

Jason Cherkis contributed reporting.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free,
24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please
visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database
of resources.

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