Passing gas: What went wrong with Xcel's D.C. lobbyist

class=img_thumbleft>Chances are that your home energy bill contains any number of fees that make you feel gassy. There's a line item for a "distribution charge," and another for the "fuel clause adjustment," and another for the city tax, and yet another for something called the "basic service charge," which doesn't include any of those other items. What you won't find broken down on your bill is the pennies that you paid Xcel Energy over the last two years to hire the Alexander Strategy Group, the powerful Washington lobbying firm that dissolved in scandal last month.

Ed Buckham, former chief of staff to Tom DeLay founded the firm with Jack Abramoff associate Tony C. Rudy. In the last two months, the DeLay and Abramoff investigations have pulled the Alexander Strategy Group into a whirlpool of corruption charges and indictments. In addition to the boring business of accused bribery and illegal junkets, ASG seems to have had its hands in some strange entanglements.

There is, for instance, Tom DeLay's non-profit, the U.S. Family Network, which was organized by Buckham. The group didn't formally lobby on behalf of U.S. families but according to reporting in the Washington Post, it apparently did accept a million dollars from a shadowy London law firm on behalf of Russian gas interests. To be fair, one U.S. family did well under the employ of the Alexander Strategy Group--that is, Tom DeLay's. The firm paid the Republican House leader's wife Christine $3,200 a month for four years in a do-nothing job.

When DeLay's associates wanted to get away from the wife and kids, they always had a few rooms at the Washington townhouse that U.S. Family Group purchased with cash. According to the Washington Post, DeLay's crew called it "the Safe House," a term more common to gangsters than Capitol Hill functionaries.

Alexander Strategy Group is no more, having lost its good name in the press and the power of its main political patron, DeLay. Yet in its heyday, Alexander Strategy Group lobbied for such corporate giants as Enron, Eli Lilly, Microsoft, Freddie Mac, BellSouth, and Time Warner. Their 24th largest client, according to the good government group the Center for Public Integrity, was the Minneapolis-based power company Xcel Energy.

According to Senate records, in 2004 Xcel paid the Alexander Strategy Group $265,000. That sum came on top of the $2.5 million that Xcel spent to lobby for itself, as tabulated in the Senate's lobbying database. So why hire another expensive outfit? According to Xcel's senior media flack Mary Sandok, before contracting with ASG, Xcel enjoyed the services of a solitary government affairs representative in Washington. (For the record, Senate filings list six Washington D.C. lobbyists--in addition to the Alexander Strategy Group--who were registered to represent Xcel in 2004, plus another lobbyist in Annapolis.) Xcel's contracts with the Alexander Strategy Group, Sandok explains, advanced the company's interests in "tax-related matters."

Curiously, on March 15, 2005, the lobbying powerhouse sent a letter to the secretary of the senate, politely revising its 2004 filing. The letter explained that ASG had originally submitted client records under the name "Excel Energy;" the proper name, of course, is spelled "Xcel."

ASG partner Ed Stewart wrote then, "it appears that our firm made a clerical mistake in the LDA filings for one of our clients....I apologize for any inconvenience this oversight may have caused your office and ask that you would kindly amend your records to reflect this updated information."

In other words, after two years of representing Xcel and after cashing $445,000 in checks, the Alexander Strategy Group literally couldn't remember its client's name.

So does Xcel feel like it got its money's worth from the DeLay crew on K Street? "We generally were satisfied with the firm's efforts on our behalf," Sandok says by email. The Xcel rep's next sentence, however, doesn't exactly sound like it comes from a satisfied customer: "Our relationship with Alexander Strategy Group ended in 2005, prior to the firm's demise."