Lynn Jenkins hasn’t left Congress yet, but the Kansas Republican has already launched a new lobbying firm.
Jenkins’ term in the U.S. House doesn’t officially end until the first week of January and she still faces major votes on the farm bill, homeland security budget and other legislation. But her new business, LJ Strategies, LLC, has already registered with the state of Kansas.
Ethics watchdogs say the situation makes a mockery of the rules restricting lawmakers from working as lobbyists until they’ve been out of office for at least one year.
“This is an egregious abuse of the revolving door,” said Craig Holman, the lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group which advocates for stricter ethics rules.
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“I suspect she’s being coached as to how to dance around the law, but it certainly violates the spirit of the revolving door law itself,” he said.
And, Holman warned, “She’s opened herself up to being bought.”
Jenkins’ office said in a statement that the congresswoman consulted with the House Ethics Committee before forming the business.
“In an abundance of caution, Congresswoman Jenkins has been working closely with the House Ethics Committee throughout this process,” said Jenkins’ spokesman Lee Modesitt. “She discussed with them the potential formation of the business prior to doing so and has subsequently reported the actual formation. The business has no clients and will not be actively seeking them until she leaves office.”
The committee declined to comment on the matter.
The five-term congresswoman shocked political observers in Washington and Topeka last year when she announced her plan to retire from Congress at the end of this term and her decision to forgo a run for governor despite buzz in GOP circles that she’d be the frontrunner.
In a Facebook post last month, Jenkins unveiled her plans for her post-congressional career. She announced that she had formed a consulting firm that would provide “strategic analysis, comprehensive federal and state government relations, political consulting, and association management.”
Jenkins’ Nov. 20 post went up the same day LJ Strategies, LLC, was registered with the Kansas Secretary of State’s office by Pat Leopold, her former chief of staff in Washington. The business’ formation was first reported by The Sunflower State Journal.
Leopold managed the campaign of Jenkins’ successor, Republican Steve Watkins, who will be sworn in next month. Watkins campaigned on a platform of draining the swamp in Washington.
Jenkins’ endorsement and appearance in television ads played a key role in the political newcomer’s victory over Democrat Paul Davis in the tight race.
The liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington said Jenkins’ consultation with the ethics committee does not resolve the conflict of interest of her continuing to serve in Congress while setting up the new firm.
“It seems clear that she is advertising what appears to be a lobbying firm,” said Donald Sherman, CREW’s deputy director.
“Until she resigns, she is a member of Congress representing the constituents of her district… I assume their expectation is she is working on their behalf and not spending time setting up a business for her private benefit,” he said.
Meredith McGehee, executive director of the nonpartisan ethics reform group Issue One, said Jenkins’ decision to set up the firm before her term ends helps reinforce public distrust of politicians of both parties.
“To put up a lobbying shingle while you’re still serving — maybe it’s happened before — but it’s very unusual and unfortunate because it plays into the public perception that the interests of the public aren’t first and foremost,” McGehee said.
Federal rules restrict Jenkins, but not her firm, from lobbying at the federal level for one year after her term ends.
Leopold, however, would only face a prohibition against lobbying Jenkins’ office, which will cease to exist after January
Leopold will face no similar prohibition against lobbying Watkins, who he worked for a campaign rather than official capacity. Reached by phone, Leopold declined to comment on the business beyond Jenkins’ Facebook post.
Holman said Public Citizen has crafted legislation that would tighten the loophole that enables Jenkins to form the business while still serving in Congress, but its prospects of passing are slim.
He said Jenkins’ votes in the final weeks of her term should be closely scrutinized as she prepares to embark on her lobbying career. Lawmakers will still consider major budget and policy bills this month.
“Lynn Jenkins will immediately pull in hundreds of thousands from clients who want to tap in her network. This is exceedingly disconcerting,” Holman said.
Jenkins won’t face any prohibition on lobbying right away in Topeka, where she has deep connections after serving in both the state legislature and as state treasurer.
The state’s current treasurer, Republican Jake LaTurner, began his career working in Jenkins’ congressional office. LaTurner said Jenkins worked hard to maintain relationships with individuals in Kansas while she was in Washington.
LaTurner said he doesn’t know the details of her operation, “but I have total confidence, knowing Lynn, that it’s absolutely appropriate.”
Kansas Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, who served in the state Senate with Jenkins, condemned her efforts to begin setting up a firm while she’s still a member of Congress.
“I don’t think that is appropriate,” said Hensley, the longest-serving member of the Legislature and a close ally of Governor-Elect Laura Kelly.
Hensley has previously introduced legislation to bar state elected officials from becoming registered lobbyists for at least two years.
He said he is unsure whether such a ban could also apply to members of Congress, but that he plans to consult with the legislature’s attorneys to determine whether the bill can include a provision that extends the cooling-off period to members of Congress.