Veon spins election's short straw into lobbying gold

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HARRISBURG -- It's taken him a few months to do it, but former House Democratic Whip Mike Veon has bounced back from his shocking re-election defeat in November and turned himself into a lobbyist with an impressive list of special interests.

Mr. Veon, 50, who represented Beaver County in Harrisburg for 22 years before being upset by neophyte Republican Jim Marshall, this past spring formed Veon-Kopp Associates by teaming with Colleen Kopp, a former legislative aide to Gov. Ed Rendell.

They have signed up two dozen clients, including some big names:

PNC Bank.

Independence Blue Cross of Philadelphia, which needs state approval to do a mega-merger in the health insurance field with Highmark of Pittsburgh.

U.S. Smokeless Tobacco of Greenwich, Conn., which is fighting Mr. Rendell's effort to tax smokeless tobacco and cigars.

Allegheny County Airport Authority, which Mr. Veon helped with several major projects when he was a legislator.

Lionsgate, a California film company that produced the series "The Kill Point" for Spike TV -- shot in Pittsburgh this summer -- and successfully pushed for $75 million in state tax breaks for film companies.

UNITE HERE, a major union representing workers at textile firms, hotels, casinos, restaurants and food service companies.

Communication Workers of America, another major union, which includes the Newspaper Guild, which represents union members at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

But Mr. Veon, a snappy dresser known for his pinstripe suits, well-coiffed gray hair and goatee, isn't just going to bat for the big guys.

According to records at the state Department of State, Mr. Veon also works on behalf of Big Brothers/Big Sisters Association of Pennsylvania; the Pennsylvania Weatherization Task Force; Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine; the National Network of Digital Schools; the Pennsylvania Child Care Association; the Association of Naturopathic Physicians; and a group in York called Youth Advocate Programs Inc.

By becoming a Harrisburg lobbyist, Mr. Veon is following a well-worn path traveled by many other former legislators who don't want to waste their inside knowledge of legislative procedures and their contacts developed over years of pacing Capitol halls.

Two other big-name legislators who were upset last year, former Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer of Altoona and former Senate Majority Leader David Brightbill of Lebanon, also have hung out lobbying shingles.

"Unfortunately, the revolving door is increasingly common, with a lot of legislators converting their government-developed expertise into lucrative lobbying careers," said Barry Kauffman of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which calls itself a citizens lobby.

"It's like the night of the living dead -- they just keep coming back in different incarnations," quipped Russ Diamond, head of a citizens group called PA Clean Sweep, formed in 2005 to protest the legislative pay raises.

Mr. Veon ran into trouble with voters because he was the only one of the 253 legislators who wouldn't vote to rescind the July 2005 raises. He claimed he had worked hard for his constituents and considered himself worth a raise from $93,000 to $123,000.

Leaving office was, however, cushioned by a one-time state payment of $126,614 and a yearly state pension of $50,340.

When Mr. Veon was House Democratic whip, the No. 2 party job, he didn't mind talking to reporters. But since joining the private sector, he hasn't been good at returning phone calls, such as ones for this story.

In a rare interview in February, he said he still thinks he was right to vote for the pay raises, even though his constituents didn't agree.

"I had a great ride [in the Legislature] for 22 years," he said. "Life goes on."

As far as being a lobbyist, he merely said, "I am open to a wide variety of clients."

His clients also aren't eager to discuss details of the issues he's working on for them since, to a significant degree, successful lobbying includes the element of surprise.

But some things are known. Mr. Veon was one of several lobbyists who successfully worked this summer for new legislation granting up to $75 million in tax breaks for movie companies who make films in Pennsylvania. That bill was strongly supported by Lionsgate and was approved in a remarkably short two months.

The $75 million benefit was significantly higher than the previous limit of $10 million, but wasn't as much as backers wanted. Film industry officials had hoped to get no cap at all on the tax breaks.

Some legislators couldn't see why wealthy producers should be given tax breaks, but Mr. Veon and others made a case for creating jobs for movie crew members.

But it wasn't just a one-man show. Also pushing for the tax breaks were Dawn Keezer of the Pittsburgh Film Office, Sharon Pinkenson of the Philadelphia Film Office, and Leslie McCombs, a former Pittsburgh TV news reporter and friend of Mr. Rendell. The governor himself also urged passage of the tax breaks because he wants to see more movies filmed in Pennsylvania.

Under a new lobbying law, former House members are barred for one year from lobbying House members, but Mr. Veon was allowed to speak to senators and administration officials. Mr. Kauffman thinks the ban should be extended for two years.

"Mike brings a wealth of experience to the position he has now," said Ms. Keezer. "He knows how everything works in Harrisburg. I think he is effective. But it was a team approach that got this done."

Mr. Veon's first client, which he took on in January, was U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co., maker of well-known tobacco products such as Skoal and Copenhagen.

Another U.S. Smokeless Tobacco lobbyist in Harrisburg, Dick Gmerek, said that Mr. Veon "was hired to provide guidance to us from his years of experience in the General Assembly."

The company didn't like one element of Mr. Rendell's "Prescription for Pennsylvania," his health care plan. It calls for taxing sales of smokeless tobacco and cigars for the first time. Cigarettes are taxed in Pennsylvania but not chewing tobacco or cigars.

This was one area where Mr. Veon, a cigar smoker, differed from the Democratic governor, who was normally his political ally. But Mr. Veon said in February that he's been consistent in his opposition to the tax.

"I've been opposed to taxing [smokeless tobacco and cigars] my whole career," he said.

While the governor's wish to tax smokeless tobacco and cigars has been kept at bay so far, "I assume the issue will raise its head in the Legislature this fall," Mr. Gmerek added.

As for Independence Blue Cross, Mr. Veon is likely to be involved in an upcoming campaign for approval of its merger with Pittsburgh-based Highmark. The Senate's Banking and Insurance Committee is expected to hold hearings on the merger this fall.

While the Allegheny County Airport Authority is listed as a client, Mr. Veon doesn't work directly for it but rather is an "on call" subcontractor to its Harrisburg lobbyist, a firm called Malady & Wooten, said Kent George, who has been executive director of the authority for almost 10 years but is leaving Oct. 5 to take a similar post in Florida.

"Mike did a tremendous job for us when he was a state legislator," Mr. George said, including making Pittsburgh International Airport eligible for funds from a new slot machine-funded economic development fund.

Since many Beaver County residents work at the airport, Mr. Veon "fought to make certain the slots legislation contained relief for the airport," said John Malady of Malady & Wooten.

He said he would have hired Mr. Veon as a full-time employee, "but Mike saw a wonderful opportunity to start his own firm."

"We thought it would be a great opportunity to work with him because of his experience, his knowledge of the legislative process," Mr. Malady said. "He has the ability to anticipate the important issues that will percolate to the top."


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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