A high-powered national lobbying firm has opened a Boston location touting a potentially valuable advantage — long and deep connections to former mayor and current US Labor Secretary Martin J. Walsh.
Ballard Partners said its new location will be headed by Eugene O’Flaherty, the former city attorney under Walsh, and includes another former close Walsh aide, Stephen Passacantilli, whom it recently hired. O’Flaherty, who was Walsh’s closest political confidant as mayor, joined Ballard’s Washington, D.C., office in March, days after the Senate confirmed Walsh’s nomination.
Since then, O’Flaherty has lobbied the Labor Department on behalf of at least eight clients, including food delivery service DoorDash, insurance giant F&G, and the American Road & Transportation Builders Association, according to federal lobbying disclosures.
O’Flaherty’s move to the new Boston office will shift his focus to more state-level issues in Massachusetts, but he and Passacantilli also will travel to Washington when needed, said Justin Sayfie, a partner at Ballard. The Florida-based firm rose to prominence in the nation’s capital in 2017 because of ties to Donald Trump and now is trying to bring in more people with Democratic connections to lobby the Biden administration.
Asked if O’Flaherty’s and Passacantilli’s ties to Walsh were a factor in their hiring, Sayfie said that the firm recruits people with a public service background and that their extensive experience in Boston politics was the main attraction. But in a news release Monday announcing the opening of the Boston office, Ballard highlighted the pair’s connections to Walsh, including linking to a 2016 Globe profile of O’Flaherty titled “The city’s top lawyer is also Walsh’s rock.”
It’s common for lobbying firms to hire people with inside access to government officials, said Virginia Canter, the chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group.
“Clients probably perceive persons who have worked closely with an agency head in the past or have some sort of friendship based on longstanding working relationships may be the persons who are most likely to get their phone calls returned in terms of lobbying that federal agency,” she said.
Walsh should strive to be as transparent as possible to avoid any ethical conflicts, Canter added. She suggested Walsh make his calendar public to show he wasn’t prioritizing lobbyists’ agendas. Following a Freedom of Information Act request from Bloomberg Law, the Labor Department released Walsh’s monthly calendars through the end of July and posted links to them on a website that contains links to all the department’s responses to FOIA requests. A department spokesman said Walsh’s calendars for August and September would be posted soon as well.
Walsh’s public calendars posted so far do not show any meetings with O’Flaherty. Lobbying disclosures don’t detail whom O’Flaherty has met with at the Labor Department and Sayfie declined to say if O’Flaherty has met with Walsh.
“Secretary Walsh and other members of the Department of Labor team regularly engage with a wide variety of outside stakeholders and entities on a range of topics,” a department spokesperson said in a statement. “As part of that engagement, they work with the agency’s career ethics attorneys on how to appropriately interact with outside voices, so as to avoid conflicts both perceived or actual.”
Walsh and O’Flaherty have known each other for more than two decades. They both took office in the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1997 and bonded over their Irish roots. After Walsh became mayor, he tapped O’Flaherty to head Boston’s law department and he became a trusted and loyal adviser. Passacantilli, who ran unsuccessfully for the Boston City Council in 2017, also held various administrative roles under Walsh, including working for the city’s Transportation Department, the Office of Economic Development, and Parks and Recreation.
According to federal lobbying disclosures, O’Flaherty represents some companies whose interests could conflict with the pro-worker stances of Walsh and President Biden. For example, one of the issues that O’Flaherty lobbied the Labor Department on for DoorDash was independent workers.
The Labor Department is looking into the classification of so-called gig workers after withdrawing a Trump administration regulation that had never gone into effect that would have made it easier for companies like DoorDash to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees covered by federal laws on minimum wage and overtime.
In Massachusetts, a coalition backed by DoorDash, Uber, and other tech companies is pushing a ballot question that would allow them to continue classifying workers as independent contractors while granting them some new benefits.
The disclosures show O’Flaherty also lobbied the White House and other federal agencies, including the Transportation and State departments, on behalf of clients including the Motion Picture Association of America.
Brian Ballard, the lobbying firm’s founder, has a close relationship with Trump and was one of his top fund-raisers in the 2016 and 2020 elections. With Trump’s loss, Ballard began hiring more Democrats. After one set of hires in January, Brian Ballard said in a news release that the firm was working “to grow our firm’s ability to effectively advocate on both sides of the aisle in our nation’s capital.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Labor Department didn’t disclose who Walsh has met with since taking the Cabinet position. The department has posted Walsh’s calendars through July in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Bloomberg Law and said calendars for August and September would be posted soon.
Neya Thanikachalam can be reached at email@example.com.