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All Too Cozy – Association Staff and Contract Lobbyists

A new board of directors called to ask my opinion about their executive director sleeping with their contract lobbyist. They feared this all too cozy relationship was not in the best interests of the association. In fact, their lobbyist was doing a poor job but the executive director lover took no correction. After our extended conversation, the board eventually fired their contractor and hired another lobbyist, who presumably won’t be having sex with the executive director.

I’ve seen this kind of association staff-lobbyist connection before, although nothing as extreme as the above. Association staff comes to see their lobbyist less as a service provider and more as an ally for managing association members. Boards tend to be “wowed” by contact lobbyists, especially lobbyists who are attorneys. They may be all but emotionally helpless to question the advice of an attorney who as a fiduciary provides both lobbying and legal services to the association. When the contract lobbyist recommends it, the board is likely to do it. Association staff sees board vulnerability as a tool to control the board. But the lobbyist gets his reward, too.

For example, the association executive director wants the chair of the association’s legislative committee gone because he frustrates the director’s control. The lobbyist sees additional income from doing the legislative committee chair’s job. Together they hatch a plan for the lobbyist to recommend to the board the chair be replaced. The executive director agrees and recommends that in the interim a weak association member be appointed the chair to be closely helped by association staff and the lobbyist. The executive director gets rid of his antagonist, the lobbyist gets more work, and together they control a committee central to the association.

Boards should be aware that their employees, association staff and contract lobbyist, share similar concerns about their bosses and how to manage them. This can lead to alliances intended to benefit the staff and lobbyist to the detriment of the association. Most alliances fall short of lovers protecting each other, but nevertheless, mutuality may drive them into each other’s arms, if only figuratively. The result is diminished job performance by both, less accountability, and collaboration to benefit each other at the association’s expense.

Boards shouldn’t expect this to happen and I suspect it infrequently occurs, my experiences notwithstanding. Given the damage to the association from all too cozy staff-lobbyist relationships, boards should be aware it can happen and keep a watchful eye.

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