K Street Research: 'Non-Lobbying Entity' Expands, Plots K Street Takeover

Since Brien Bonneville and Larry Mitchell founded the very first "non-lobbying entity" at the beginning of the year, they've found plenty of demand for their "non-lobbying" services.

Their firm, which they call K Street Research, has attracted several new clients for a total of nine. To meet the additional demand they've hired an additional staffer, Tim Farnsworth, as director of research and communications.

"It's been exciting," said Mitchell. "We've had a lot of compliments, we've picked up quite a few clients... Right now we don't really have any competition."

Who are those clients, and what do they pay? That's for KSR to know and nobody to find out.

KSR markets itself as a firm that does everything a lobbyshop does but without making "lobbying contacts," so the company's name stays out of the Lobbying Disclosure Act database and corporate clients can avoid the "Scarlet L." KSR's clients, its founders say, include law firms and small lobbyshops -- they decline to be more specific. They say the firm is almost like a small newspaper that provides clients info about what's happening in Washington.

Bonneville and Mitchell say they draw inspiration for their innovative business model from Robert Kaiser's "So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government," a book about pioneering superlobbyist Gerald Cassidy, who made his name winning earmarks for high-paying clients.

"It's kind of a cult classic around here," said Mitchell of the book. "It's kind of odd -- a book about lobbying gave us the idea on how to do a firm that doesn't lobby."

Is it also odd, or maybe just ironic, that a book implicating K Street innovation in the corrosion of American government is the inspiration for K Street innovation? "You really have to be innovative in Washington to make a name for yourself," said Bonneville.

Mitchell pointed out that Cassidy's "industrialization" of earmark process may be troubling, but he didn't invent the earmark. "Earmarks have existed for a long time."

Bonneville told HuffPost in January that another source of inspiration is President Obama's anti-lobbyist campaign talk. "The new rhetoric [against K Street] has caused us to rethink where we want to be in our careers... We're embracing the need for change," said Bonneville, who is 24. "We're not lobbying. We're doing policy research."

They're not the only ones who'd rather not wear the Scarlet L. Even though 2009 was a record year for lobbying revenue, Bonneville and Mitchell are among hundreds of lobbyists who deregistered over the course of the year. Some good-government folks suspect there are no fewer lobbyists, just fewer lobbyists abiding the rules.

KSR itself has not escaped that that suspicion. "KSR is very likely crossing the line into reportable lobbying activity in its effort to make lobbying more opaque for corporations and other special interests," wrote Public Citizen's Craig Holman in an email to HuffPost. "Though KSR correctly observes that many lobbying organizations unnecessarily report non-lobbying activity -- such as pure research -- on their LDA disclosures, the services that KSR offers to its clients to help reduce reportable lobbying activity is, in many instances, reportable lobbying activity itself."

Holman looked over the promotional language on KSR's site and tried to square it with the strictures of the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which includes "preparation and planning activities" in support of lobbying contacts in the definition of "lobbying activity."

"Any research or activity performed by KSR that is intended to facilitate lobbying contacts by their clients is reportable lobbying activity," Holman wrote. "The only work done by KSR on behalf of their clients that would not be reportable is simple administrative tasks, like that done by a temp agency, and pure academic research that is not intended to facilitate the client's lobbying work."

KSR is not worried at all that anything it does will violate the letter of the law. "We're very conscious we're just not going to cross that line," said Mitchell.