Brian Ballard, the Florida fundraiser often sought out by Republican presidential candidates, was best known in Tallahassee until election night 2016. When the state was called for Trump, Ballard’s cellphone lit up with clients looking for a guide into the new administration.
Disclosures now show just how lucrative those services can be: by the end of 2017, Ballard Partners LP had racked up $9.8 million in federal lobbying fees, the most of any new K Street arrival in the two decades such records have been available.
Trump’s surprising victory and Ballard’s relationship with him proved pivotal as clients looked for someone who knew the outsider in the White House. Ballard first met Trump in the 1980s and had represented the real estate developer in Florida since 2013. After opening his Washington office, Ballard scored major clients, including American Airlines Group Inc. and Prudential Financial Inc., disclosures with the Senate Office of Public Records show.
The firm’s success is emblematic of a lobbying boom that belies Trump’s vow to “Drain the Swamp." With companies looking to exploit a one-party government that has promised to be more business-friendly, overall spending on lobbyists increased to $3.34 billion in 2017 from $3.15 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The number of active individual lobbyists increased for the first time since 2007.
Ballard Partners’ first year widely outpaced that of firms established by former senators, top White House aides and cabinet members. The second-most lucrative performance by a rookie firm was in 2008, when former Senators John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, and Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, took in $8.1 million in their first year running the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group.
Ballard, 55, has become a major player inside the Beltway with a top-notch client list even as Washington pillars such as Tony Podesta have vanished overnight and others with ties to Trump, like former Corey Lewandowski partner Barry Bennett, have had much less success, at least as measured by lobbying disclosures.
“He’s very bright, he’s very hardworking, he can be as charming as anyone might want and as ruthless as anyone might fear," said Mac Stipanovich, who was running Bob Martinez’s 1986 gubernatorial campaign when he first met Ballard. Ballard’s success has followed “the same pattern that made him a top lobbyist in Tallahassee, except on steroids," Stipanovich said.
While Ballard’s firm wasn’t the biggest earner last year– Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP brought in the most, with $38.7 million in lobbying fees — Ballard Partners ranked in the top 30. It had a more lucrative debut than the Breaux-Lott Leadership Group and another bipartisan power couple: Jack Quinn, President Bill Clinton’s White House counsel, and longtime Republican strategist Ed Gillespie started Quinn Gillespie & Associates in 2000, when it earned $7.5 million in fees, a Bloomberg analysis of lobby disclosure records found.
He already represented companies including Amazon.com Inc., Reynolds American subsidiary RAI Services Co., and Uber Technologies, Inc. Since the move to Washington, he also has picked up foreign clients — a rarity for a rookie lobbying firm. The firm earned $1.8 million in 2017 by representing the governments of Turkey, the Dominican Republic and Kosovo, according to records filed with the Justice Department.
While Ballard wasn’t one of the earliest Trump supporters, he wasn’t against him either. He initially backed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush in the 2016 primaries, then switched to Senator Marco Rubio, but was never "never Trump," he said. Ballard recommended a partner in his Florida firm to manage Trump’s state primary campaign and agreed to lead Trump’s fundraising operation in Florida after he secured the nomination.
McFaul, former chief of staff for Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, worked on the appointments team for the transition, recruiting and vetting officials for Defense, Veterans Affairs and the intelligence services. Ballard also hired Rebecca Benn, who had worked for Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, and Sylvester Lukis, who’d been a Washington lobbyist before running Ballard Partners’ Miami office. Ballard also brought Susie Wiles, whom he’d detailed as senior strategist to Trump’s Florida campaign team, to Washington.