Kyl brings experience as a senator, baggage as a lobbyist to new job

Government watchdog groups are concerned by possible conflicts for new Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl, who spent the past several years as a lobbyist for a top Washington shop, but some people who know him called Kyl an “exceptionally ethical actor.” (Photo by Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – When he named Jon Kyl to replace the late Sen. John McCain last week, Gov. Doug Ducey said that every day Kyl was in office would be “a day when our state is being well-served.”

But it’s the service Kyl has performed for the past several years, as a lobbyist representing an impressive list of multinational clients, that has government watchdogs concerned.

“Someone who 10 days ago was working on behalf of massive corporate clients from Walmart to Raytheon suddenly being in the Senate to represent constituents again, I think it brings us all to a place of pause,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen.

But Mike Noble, an Arizona pollster, said that although that might give some pause, he’s confident Kyl will behave ethically.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a question of his character or integrity,” said Noble, managing partner of OH Predictive Insights. “He’s a good guy, on a lot of levels.”

After leaving the Senate at the start of 2013, Kyl joined top Washington lobbying firm Covington & Burling in March 2013. The Senate Lobbying Disclosure Act Database includes dozens of reports that mention Kyl dating back to February 2015, representing millions of dollars in contracts for the firm.

Clients ranged from microchip and telecom firm Qualcomm to the Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), from defense contractor Northrup Grumman to biotech firm Celgene Corp. to mining company Freeport-McMoRan.

In March, Covington & Burling issued a press release lauding a team that included Kyl for having “secured” an executive order from President Donald Trump that “marked total victory for Qualcomm” in its fight to fend off a takeover bid by Singapore-based Broadcom Corp.

Neither Covington nor Kyl’s Senate office – he was sworn in to McCain’s seat Wednesday – returned requests for comment.

But Jeb Barnes, a professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said Kyl’s situation points to a “broader question of how quickly we should allow the revolving door to turn.”

Kyl is not the first to move between public office and private lobbying. Eric Holder left Covington in 2009 to become attorney general under President Barack Obama and returned to the firm after leaving office in 2015.

But where Holder went through the door in one direction, Kyl is going in the other. For Danielle Brian, executive director for the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, that is more than just the typical Washington revolving door but “a serious step into the swamp.”

“It’s a real shame that Senator McCain, who fought against the revolving door and the corrupting influence of lobbying and campaign finance, is being replaced by someone who left the Senate and stepped into that swamp,” Brian said in an email. “I can hear the contractors clinking their glasses right now.”

Arizona political consultant Jason Rose said he understands the concerns firsthand: Rose is representing one side in a fight over development near the Grand Canyon and Covington is representing the other. But he has faith in Kyl, who has only committed to serve through the end of this year.

“Notwithstanding those concerns, Jon Kyl has been known his entire career as an exceptionally ethical actor with great integrity,” Rose said. “Just because someone has a complicated untangling of lobbying relationships, doesn’t mean they won’t act as they have before in the Senate, with that same honor and integrity.”

John Wonderlich, executive director at the Sunlight Foundation, said it “would be wise for Senator Kyl to ask the Senate Select Committee on Ethics for guidance on when it would be appropriate to recuse himself given how recently he has been a lobbyist.”

That recommendation was echoed by Rose.

Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at Common Cause, said Kyl should release a list of his clients from the law firm.

“I’d want to see the client list, and I’d want to see the senator recuse himself from any matters pertaining to their former clients,” he said.

Requests for comment from the Senate Ethics Committee were not returned.

Noble, who just finished a poll on Ducey’s selection of Kyl, said most Arizonans seem to agree it was a “fantastic” pick.

“When you look at his favorables, he’s very well liked,” Noble said. “Very few people dislike him.”