'$500K lobbyist' works quietly

Big-name clients pay Don Beason big money to represent their interests

The Charlotte ObserverAugust 1, 2007 

He's no hail fellow or backslapper in the mold of many lobbyists who do business over a drink and steak. He's quiet, preferring to work behind the scenes.

He's not a former legislator or lawyer.

Don Beason is unlike most lobbyists in Raleigh. Yet he is generally considered the most influential lobbyist who courts lawmakers on Jones Street.

During testimony Tuesday by former House Speaker Jim Black, Beason, 68, publicly became the man whom many in Raleigh have dubbed "the $500K lobbyist."

The $500,000 loan to Black in 2000 surfaced in court papers days before the Matthews optometrist was sentenced in federal court last month. Beason was widely speculated to be the lender, but Black confirmed the rumors Tuesday.

Now, the spotlight is on a man who many say doesn't like attention.

Beason, who was raised in Mount Airy in Surry County, was a deputy commerce secretary, then commerce secretary to Republican Gov. Jim Holshouser.

Beason ran the research office for Republican Gov. Jim Martin, and then headed Martin's drug cabinet. He left in 1991 to become a registered lobbyist.

His style, some legislators say, is not to strong-arm.

"He doesn't get in your face or make demands," said Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston County Democrat. "He's been very direct and honest in the dealings I've had with him."

Beason didn't return messages, but he issued a statement Tuesday night apologizing to his clients, lawmakers, lobbyists and residents of North Carolina.

His 19 clients -- including BellSouth, BB&T, Progress Energy, IBM and Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- pay him handsome sums. A spokeswoman for Beason said that he had contacted most of his clients Tuesday about the loan he made to Black and that they were supportive of him.

In recent years, he has been ranked at the top of the state's nearly 640 registered lobbyists. He was considered the most influential in 2003 and 2005, the last two years a survey was taken of legislators, lobbyists and reporters who cover the legislature.

"I see him at the legislative building, and he's always talking to legislators," said Ran Coble, director of the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research. "Some lobbyists hang around but don't talk to legislators. He's always working it."

When Black was sworn in as speaker in 2005, he celebrated at a private room at Raleigh's fancy Second Empire Restaurant. He directed an aide to bill Beason.

The $500,000 loan has alarmed public interest groups. At the time he made it, Beason was representing video poker operators.

"We were stunned that any lobbyist could give that kind of loan to a speaker," said Bob Phillips, who heads Common Cause North Carolina. "To provide a loan of that size one can't help to think it is going to provide some benefits for the lender."

In 2000, it didn't break any laws, Phillips said. Now, the state outlaws lobbyists' making loans to lawmakers.

Beason might be in trouble with his own professional association.

Susan Valauri, president of N.C. Professional Lobbyist Association, said the group's code prohibits members from putting an officeholder in a position of conflict of interest with actions that would constitute "improper influence."

Valauri said Tuesday that she had not spoken to Beason and that she did not want to prejudge him.

The association has a standards and conduct committee that would investigate a complaint about a code violation. Beason would have a chance to respond to the complaint. The committee would make a recommendation on disciplinary action to the association's board.

Black testified that it was not unusual for lobbyists to loan legislators money, but Valauri said she had not heard of another case.

At least two clients are taking a closer look at Beason's practices.

Progress Energy said it will review its relationship with him.

"We are disappointed and surprised to learn about this situation," the company said in a statement. "Our contractors and consultants are expected to meet the same stringent legal and ethical standards as our employees. We are evaluating this situation and will take appropriate action when all the facts are known."

So will the city of Hickory, where Beason worked to get state money for several projects in the city and Catawba County. The city and county each pay $27,000 to hire Beason.

"We pride ourselves on having a transparent and open environment in this city," said Hickory City Manager Mick Berry. "If we can't understand exactly what took place, that will certainly give us reason to consider our relationship."

(Staff writers Lynn Bonner, Titan Barksdale and Ryan Teague Beckwith of The News & Observer contributed to this report.)

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