When people think about lobbyists in the corridors of power in Washington, what comes to mind is a shady character like Remy Danton (played by Mahershala Ali) in the American television series “House of Cards” – a mega-lobbyist who switches sides based on his personal interests and the piles of cash involved, and who, in the process, also manages to affect national policy.
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Reality can be no less horrifying. High-profile lobbyist Jack Abramoff, for example, made a name for himself in Washington due to his tight connections with Republican members of Congress. But his career was undone after he became embroiled in a corruption scandal that landed him in jail.
In 2001, he joined the Washington offices of the Greenberg Traurig law firm as a lobbyist, bringing with him a stable of clients from his former lobbying firm. In 2004, after complaints against him began to be investigated, Greenberg Traurig fired him. His career ended in 2006 when “The Man Who Bought Washington” – as he was dubbed on the cover of Time Magazine – was sentenced to nearly six years in prison.
He was convicted in a scandal where he took some $85 million in fees from Native American tribes, to advance their gambling interests. In practice, however, he acted against their interests so they would require his services. He served three years and was released on good behavior.
Israeli lawyer Meital Stavinsky is a Washington lobbyist and partner in Greenberg Traurig. Her job also involves opening doors for her clients – most of whom are Israeli – but she has taken a very different path from Abramoff.
“Abramoff not only hurt his clients, but also the firm. That’s not the way Greenberg Traurig operates,” she says.
Stavinsky is involved with federal legislative issues and works on behalf of Israeli technology firms, who, for the most part, are involved in environmentally friendly technology and agriculture. The work is carried out in the halls of Congress and at federal agencies such as the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.
Israeli companies have a lot of potential opportunities they are unaware of, she says, noting, for example, the $500 billion annual purchasing power of the federal government.
“It could be implementation of an information security [program], a safety system for cars or energy savings in federal government buildings,” says Stavinsky. “The potential from the standpoint of the Israeli companies is huge. From the moment the federal administration adopts a solution from an Israeli company, it can provide a major boost for the company in the American market.
"Part of my work is teaching those same agencies what exists in the market, so that when an invitation for bids is issued, they will also be relevant for the solutions offered by Israeli companies. When a company is awarded a project by a federal agency, it’s like a stamp of approval.”
The U.S. government does give preference to American suppliers, Stavinsky acknowledges, by virtue of the Buy American Act. But there is a list of treaties that also allows suppliers from signatory countries to compete for the federal government’s business under certain circumstances.
Israel is a treaty signatory, but Israeli companies also need to be aware of the origin of their product components – from China, for example, which is not a signatory. Use of Chinese components could therefore disqualify an Israeli company’s product from participation, she cautions.
“Every case is examined on an individual basis,” she explains. “In instances in which bids are only open to U.S. companies, an Israeli firm can usually take part as a subcontractor. At the end of the day, it’s money from the U.S. taxpayer, and the aim is to encourage job creation and innovation. But there are programs that are relevant to Israeli companies if they want to develop a project or various stages of research in the United States.”
In addition to programs for small business – for example, through the U.S. Small Business Administration – there are programs through the U.S. Department of Energy, providing special benefits in the field of renewable energy. Israeli projects seeking to participate must present a project in the United States, even if the project is owned by a foreign entity.
Most federal government departments currently have an office that handles outside inquiries. “Defense firms know the way to Washington,” Stavinsky says, “but others don’t. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible to do alone. I have encountered three guys in the defense field, for example, who went into a project by joining forces with one of the suppliers that received the primary grant, and I take my hat off to them. They did their research, performed their legwork and got into the project.”
Shuttling between Miami and D.C.
Stavinsky’s is a classic case of someone who moved from one place to another without planning for her life to take the direction she ended up pursuing. She earned a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in law from Tel Aviv University, got her law license and worked for three years as a law reporter for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth. In 2001, as a result of a trip that her now former husband took to Miami, she took a job in Miami, working on content for the Israeli company Gilat Satellite Networks.
She was then appointed legal counsel to the company, passed the New York State bar exam and, as a result of her work, became acquainted with Greenberg Traurig. The law firm offered her a job and she has been there since 2002.
“Over the years the firm has grown, and if we were 700 lawyers then, currently there are 1,850. It’s a firm that is entrepreneurial in its character, and I have become part of the team that started to develop a practice.” She now shuttles between Florida, where she lives, and Washington, where she functions also as a lobbyist to the firm’s Israeli office, which was opened two years ago in Tel Aviv.
“From a personal standpoint, I have gone through a process. If you would have told me two years ago that I would be part of the firm’s governmental affairs department, I wouldn’t have believed it. The first time I had contact with it was when I was a volunteer for AIPAC and AJC, when I lobbied on behalf of Israel,” she recalls, referring to the largest pro-Israel lobby in Washington and the American Jewish Committee.
“In 2010, as a volunteer, I began to have meetings with administration officials, senators and members of the House of Representatives. At some point, everything came together for me and I switched to the governmental affairs field at the firm. Because my focus is technology, I won’t take a client if I don’t believe there is value in the solution he is proposing. When I was just starting out as a lawyer, I wouldn’t have dared passing up clients. But now I am in a different situation. I won’t be effective if I don’t believe in a client.”
When asked how long she expected to continue working in governmental relations, she replies, “The reason I love what I am currently doing so much is that I really and truly view it as a lot more than a job. For me as an Israeli in the United States, promoting Israeli companies in the very center of the American political arena, while demonstrating how those companies can not only help American citizens but also help on a global basis in many cases, is the best public diplomacy I can perform on a personal level for Israel.”