by THEODORIC MEYER · November 10, 2017
Less than two weeks after Tony Podesta stepped down as chairman, the firm he founded 30 years ago may soon shut its doors | Jacqueline Larma/AP Photo
The firm’s chief executive is leaving to start her own lobbying shop as Tony Podesta’s firm prepares for the end.
Tony Podesta’s lavish art collection is coming down off the walls at the Podesta Group, as the lobbying firm — among the largest and most powerful in Washington — prepares to close up shop.
Workers started removing dozens of pieces in Podesta’s collection of photography and other artworks from the walls of the firm on Thursday, the same day Kimberley Fritts, the firm’s longtime chief executive, abruptly resigned, according to a Podesta Group staffer.
Fritts is starting her own firm and intends to bring many of the firm’s top lobbyists with her, according to seven Podesta Group staffers, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the situation candidly. But less than two weeks after Podesta stepped down as chairman, the firm he founded 30 years ago may soon shut its doors, with staffers unsure if they’ll be paid after next week.
“The firm as it existed is essentially over,” one Podesta Group staffer said. “The vast majority of people are going their own way.”
At an emotional staff meeting late Thursday afternoon, Fritts told staffers they could clear out their offices and said that Wednesday might be their last payday.
“We will try to compensate you on the 30th, but we can’t make any promises,” Fritts said, according to one staffer who was in the meeting.
Podesta tapped Fritts as his successor last week, hours after an indictment was unsealed charging Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, with breaking foreign lobbying law. Special counsel Robert Mueller is investigating Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, as part of his probe into Russia meddling in the 2016 election.
The indictment accused Manafort of hiring the Podesta Group — identified as “Company B” — to lobby for an ostensibly independent nonprofit that “was under the ultimate direction” of the Ukrainian president, his party and the Ukrainian government. Neither Podesta nor the Podesta Group has been charged publicly with any crimes.
Fritts didn’t respond to a request for comment. Podesta referred questions to a spokesperson.
“Tony and Kimberley worked together for 22 years,” the spokesperson said in a statement to POLITICO. “He has tremendous affection, respect, and admiration for her and hopes that she and her team of former Podesta Group colleagues will build a firm that is even more successful than the Podesta Group.”
Fritts had been expected to relaunch the Podesta Group under a new name in the days after Podesta stepped down. But she instead announced in the meeting on Thursday that she was leaving to start her own firm after negotiations with Podesta broke down. Her last day was Friday, according to Podesta Group staffers.
Fritts is now hustling to find new office space and get her new firm off the ground. Staffers, meanwhile, are struggling to figure out what will happen to the Podesta Group with Fritts gone and Podesta — an outsized presence in Washington known for his flamboyant ties and ubiquity at Democratic fundraisers — nowhere to be found.
While Podesta has stepped down as chairman, he remains the Podesta Group’s sole owner. Staffers say they haven’t received any word from him about what will happen to his firm next week.
“I kind of feel like the ball’s in his court after last night,” one Podesta Group staffer said, referring to Podesta. “His name’s on the door. It’s his firm.”
Staffers are wondering why a firm that brought in $24 million last year suddenly can’t pay their salaries, and why Podesta and Fritts were unable to strike a deal to transfer ownership of the firm.
“There’s a lot of anger at Tony because of that,” one Podesta Group staffer said.
Some Podesta Group lobbyists are now planning to join Fritts at her new firm, which The New York Times reported on Friday would be named Cogent Strategies.
Others are considering joining rival lobbying firms or starting their own shops. One lobbyist, Paul Brathwaite, sent a note to clients last week announcing he was starting his own firm, Federal Street Strategies.
In interviews, several Podesta Group staffers said they’d keep lobbying for their own clients regardless of whether the lights are on in the Podesta Group’s offices on G Street next week.
“I’ve talked to clients and explained what the situation was,” said one Podesta Group staffer. I’m going to keep working for them. We’ll figure out the formality of where my desk is and who’s paying my paycheck between now and Wednesday.”
But rival lobbying firms are pursuing the more than 80 clients that the Podesta Group boasted as recently as September. Two of the Podesta Group’s highest-paying clients, Wells Fargo and Oracle, have cut ties with the firm, although several others said last week that they were sticking with the firm for now.
Other firms are eyeing the Podesta Group’s lobbyists, too.
Ivan Adler, a lobbying headhunter, said he’d heard from at least half a dozen firms looking to snag Podesta Group talent. “I expect there will be more soon,” Adler wrote in an email.
Those who expect to join Fritts — known affectionately around the firm as as “KF” — at her new firm are excited about the prospect of a fresh start, several Podesta Group staffers said.
But it’s clear that it won’t be everyone. Fritts has arranged for headhunters to come to the firm and help those who aren’t headed to her new shop find jobs.
“Her No. 1 priority is trying to take care of folks,” one staffer said.
Still, two Podesta Group staffers said the meeting Thursday, when Fritts announced her plan to launch the new firm, rubbed them the wrong way.
“We walk into the room and there’s Champagne bottles and glasses in the room, as if it’s a celebration,” said one Podesta Group staffer. Another staffer called it “in poor taste.”
Other staffers, though, said that while there was booze at the meeting, the mood was anything but celebratory.
“It wasn’t happy clanking,” a third staffer said. “It was an Irish funeral.”
Politico · by THEODORIC MEYER · November 10, 2017