Today there was a prime example of how those lobbyists and members who are part of Speaker Bill Howell’s tight inner circle receive VIP treatment. In this case it was Chris Jankowski, the single largest source of campaign dollars for the House political operation and one of the lobbyists closest to Howell. You may remember him from our story earlier this week.
This one has a lot of moving parts, so pay attention.
Ellis Denning Construction and Development is a firm in Rockville, MD. While most of the firm’s work is in DC, they have some projects in Virginia. Currently they have a large project under construction in Loudoun. Additionally they have two other projects in pre-development: a 150,000 square foot development in Montross and a 751 unit residential development near Colonial Beach.
Both of those pre-development projects are in the district of newly-minted Senator Richard Stuart. During the campaign, Stuart received a $2,500 donation from Ellis Demming. This is the only political donation that the firm has ever made based on VPAP.
When Stuart ran, it became common knowledge that the person calling the shots in the campaign was Chris Jankowski. Chris was on the ground a lot. Sometimes almost daily. Worked very hard for Stuart by all accounts.
If you have worked a tough competitive race, you know that there is often a strong bond that develops between the staff and their candidate. Word has it that such a bond was formed here. Keep all this in mind.
Fast forward to this year’s General Assembly session.
The Homebuilders Association of Virginia made it a top priority to end the cash proffer system and moving to impact fees. The bill, SB786, was sponsored by Senator John Watkins.
One company, Ellis Denning (remember them above?), took special interest in the legislation. Ellis Denning hired a lobbyist. Hmm... who could they hire... who can get the job done...
They hired Chris Jankowski. In his mandatory filing of his being retained by the firm as a lobbyist, Jankowski wrote that he was hired to handle “All matters pertaining to but not limited to SB786.” What? That's bizarre. It is very unusual for a lobbyist to say he is specifically handling issues pertaining to a specific drafted bill. In Jankowski’s case, it will allow you to look inside how the Howell insider machine operates.
Now let’s walk through what happens next.
The bill is initially sent to Senate Local Government Committee, of which Richard Stuart is a member. Remember what was said above- Ellis Denning has only contributed to one candidate (Stuart) and they have major projects planned in his district. The bill is amended in committee and passes out 10-3 with Stuart voting YES.
From Local Government it made a stop in Senate Finance where it is passed out 12-2 and was sent to the Senate floor for a vote.
On the floor, the whole Senate rejected the amendments made to the bill in the Local Government committee. Instead, Senator Watkins offers an amendment in the form of a substitute which the Senate votes to approve. After an additional amendment from Senator Whipple is passed, the final bill passes out of the Senate on a 21-19 vote. But this time, Stuart votes NO. Clearly something in the amendments that were approved on the floor, changed the bill for him.
Without parsing it line-by-line, given the developments in his district and the donation from Ellis Denning, it certainly would be a reasonable assumption that the amended bill was no longer a good bill for the company (and, possibly for the district itself). And it may be that Stuart thought it was the right thing to do and his perspective happened to align with Ellis Denning.
Assuming the bill is now unfavorable to Ellis Denning, Jankowski has to do something on the House side. And the easiest thing to do is go to the boss and get some help.
In the House, the speaker determines which committee will review a given bill. However, this year, the Speaker has chosen to send some bills to Rules Committee he chairs rather than sending it to the committee that would typically review it. The Speaker has used this tactic to send bills straight to floor in an effort to cause Democrats to cast a bad vote politically. This is what happened earlier in the year with Adam Ebbin’s bill which Democrats refused to vote on. Senator McEachin’s pro-labor bill is being handled the same way.
While most observers would have expected the Speaker to refer the bill to the House Counties, Cities and Towns Committee, instead, he sent it to the Rules Committee. And on a voice vote, it was continued until next year. Possibly this was done to work out the kinks, but the bottom line is that the version Jankowski opposed will not be law any time soon. And that was likely to be the real goal.
Some may say that the Speaker continued the bill because he does not get along well with Mike Toalson, the Homebuilder’s main lobbyist. But many aides and members think there is something else at work here. Most of the members and aides who knew about the bill had no idea that Jankowski had any interest in it. That created some confusion and curiosity in the General Assembly Building as to why the Speaker was sending the bill to Rules, rather than Counties, Cities and Towns.
But when word began to circulate that Jankowski was hired to lobby the issue, things began to make sense. Instead of working with the other staffers, lobbyists and members to get a deal, many now believe that Jankowski ignored the usual process and just asked the Speaker to send it to Rules and continue it for a year. That way there are no fingerprints left.
When you give the Speaker the kind of cash Chris Jankowski does, it seems like the rules change. Unsure if a piece of legislation will go the way you want through the normal process? No problem! Speaker Bill will hook you up and fix the mess.
But only if you come with a lot of campaign cash and some free plane rides.