First in a series of occasional articles.
It was late February when William “Mo” Cowan returned to the US Senate chamber, using his lifetime privilege as a former member to walk onto the floor. Hugs and handshakes were exchanged by Cowan, who had served six months in 2013, and his former colleagues.
As Cowan enjoyed his special access to the Senate that day, he was arguably more powerful than when he was a member, appointed by Governor Deval Patrick in February 2013 to Senator John F. Kerry’s seat until a special election could be held. Indeed, Cowan, 45, had two new roles, both of which placed him at the nexus of policy and influence, and also of potential conflicts.
Last October, three months after leaving office, Cowan was hired as chief operating officer of a major player among Boston lobbying firms, ML Strategies, whose clients have included some key defense contractors.
That followed Patrick’s appointment of Cowan in July to a little-known panel with the potential to put a major imprint on defense-related business in Massachusetts, including, possibly, the business interests of some ML Strategies clients.
The state task force he cochairs is charged with recommending how to spend up to $177 million of state taxpayer money on improvements at the six military bases in Massachusetts. Cowan said it was unlikely conflicts would emerge from his roles at the lobbying firm and on the task force, but said he would recuse himself from deliberations if any arise.
“I don’t see the conflict, real or potential,” Cowan said in an interview.
The work of the task force, whose members include representatives from state agencies, the military, and the defense industry, is at the center of a new state push to use taxpayer money in an effort to persuade the Pentagon to keep the bases open.
It is an innovative but unproven strategy that may come to naught — Pentagon officials stressed in interviews that base-closing decisions in this time of shrinking budgets should be made on military grounds, not on local lobbying and spending.
But it may be the state’s best bet, officials say, with the potential benefit of retaining the bases well worth the gamble of state funds.
“This authorization will send a clear message to the Pentagon that we are serious about promoting and protecting our defense communities and our one-of-a-kind intellectual resources,” Patrick said when he signed the bond bill into law in March. State officials stressed the money would be spent on projects such as energy efficiency that would be beneficial if the property is transferred to local authorities.
New political realities
The new approach underscores the new realities for Massachusetts officials at a time when the state’s political power in Washington continues to diminish. The old lines of power between Capitol Hill and Beacon Hill are widely viewed as frayed. Long gone are the days when the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy or House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. could send billions of dollars Boston’s way.
That raw political power has been replaced by an improvised power play, one that leans on less experienced legislators, the task force, and a coterie of lobbyists and consultants, all chasing dollars at a time of vast federal budget deficits.
And Cowan is at the middle of it, working as both a lobbying firm executive and gubernatorial appointee. It is a potentially delicate balancing act.
Some, meanwhile, criticize the whole concept of the task force, concerned that the bond bill expenditures will result in scattershot efforts that will enrich the coffers of defense and construction companies while doing little to ensure that the bases stay open. The final spending decisions will be left to whoever sits in the governor’s chair, with limited oversight from the state Legislature.
“It is ‘Governor, spend it as you wish,’” said state Senator James B. Eldridge of Acton, one of only two legislators to oppose the bill.
Eldridge has spoken against the plan even though his district includes Fort Devens, which was mostly shuttered in 1996 but still has a training facility that could benefit from the bond bill.
“I have to ask,’’ he said, “why we are spending state money on a national, federal purpose at a time when we have many, many domestic needs?”
It was 2005 when the state last had reason to fear that the federal government would shut down one of its military bases. The Pentagon had recommended closing Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod. Members of the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission came to Massachusetts to hear arguments about the base’s merits.
A bipartisan panel of state leaders testified against the idea, including then-governor Mitt Romney, a Republican; Kennedy, a long-serving member of the Armed Services Committee; and then-senator Kerry, a senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Even with that powerful triumvirate in the forefront, the state surprised many by persuading the commission to remove Otis from the list on grounds that it was essential to national security.
Now, with the Pentagon proposing the creation of a new base-closure commission, officials increasingly worry that Bay State facilities will again be targeted for shutdown.
But this time, if it happens, the state will have to defend its bases from a hugely diminished political base. Kennedy and Kerry served a combined 74 years in the Senate. The state’s two current senators, Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren, have about two years of combined service in the chamber, although Markey did have a long career in the House.
To make up for that power shortage, Patrick has developed an aggressive strategy. At its center is the task force cochaired by the governor, Cowan, and US Representative Niki Tsongas, the Lowell Democrat who sits on the House Armed Services Committee.
Tsongas, in office for six years, is keenly aware of how much clout the state has lost on defense matters with the death of Kennedy and the departure of other members – with much of the responsibility now resting with her and Cowan.
Kennedy “was a giant of the Senate and we know how persuasive he could be,” Tsongas said. “As it has turned out, with subsequent elections, I am now the only member [from Massachusetts] on Armed Services, with more seniority than I probably could have imagined.” As for Cowan, Tsongas said “his experience — however brief it might have been — in the United States Senate” makes him qualified to serve on the task force.
One of the ironies of the Massachusetts economy is that, despite the state’s liberal reputation and the historic opposition of its elected leaders to increases in overall defense spending, it depends significantly on defense jobs funded by federal taxpayers.
The 14th-largest state in terms of population, Massachusetts is the fifth-highest recipient of defense contracts, and its six bases are magnets for military-related work, according to the US Census Bureau.
For example, the largest facility, Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, accounts for $8.4 billion in annual revenue and more than 18,000 jobs, directly and indirectly. It has attracted high-tech companies and research laboratories, including MIT’s Lincoln Labs and federally funded Mitre Corp.
The other five bases — the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center; the Fort Devens training facility; the National Guard facility at Joint Base Cape Cod (formerly known as Otis Air Force Base); Westover Air Force Reserve Base; and Barnes Air National Guard Base — account for another 28,000 jobs.
The state’s politicians typically say they are all for curtailing military spending — but not cuts that deeply affect Massachusetts.
“The defense budget is too big,” said US Representative James McGovern of Worcester. “We have convinced ourselves wrongly the more you spend, the more secure you are. But when you make cuts you want to make sure you are cutting what you don’t need and preserving what you do need.” He said he believes the state’s bases are among those needed, but he added that “everything should be on the table.”
Given the near impossibility of getting a member of Congress to vote against a local base, the federal government in 1988 created the first Base Realignment and Closure Commission, which sent its recommendation to Congress. In Massachusetts, that process led to the closure of most of Fort Devens, the shutdown of South Weymouth Naval Air Station, and the unfulfilled threat to close Otis Air Force Base.
In 2011, then-lieutenant governor Tim Murray became concerned anew about the remaining bases while attending a meeting of the National Lieutenant Governors Association. There was talk that a new round of base closures was under consideration, with as many as a quarter of US installations on the target list.
Then in 2012, the Air Force downgraded Hanscom’s primary weapons development center by putting a two-star instead of a three-star general in charge, setting off more alarms on Beacon Hill and in the congressional delegation. Patrick, meanwhile, authorized the creation of the military task force with Murray as chairman. Patrick replaced him last July with cochairmanships for himself, Tsongas, and Cowan.
The task force quickly decided that if it wanted to influence Washington, it needed to come up with a pot of money as a show of the state’s commitment to the military, which led to passage of the $177 million bond bill.
“If you are a state that doesn’t have any political power because you have [new] senators, young freshman congressmen, you can’t rely on the politics. You’ve got to do something else to enhance your attractiveness,” said a paid adviser to the task force, retired Lieutenant General Harry “Bud” Wyatt, former head of the Air National Guard in Washington.
Wyatt also sits on the National Commission on the Structure of the Air Force, established by Congress in 2012 to recommend what the future structure of the Air Force should look like.
Given the state’s declining influence in Washington, even Cowan’s brief Senate service is considered valuable.
“Serving as United States senator for six months, you have an understanding of the Pentagon’s working and process,” Murray said, “and relationships that are part of all this, too, developing contacts. He would bring the imprimatur of the governor, knowing the governor.”
Hectic schedule for Cowan
With its sweeping views of Boston Harbor and the city’s financial district, Cowan’s office, on the 41st floor of the 46-story One Financial Center, looks just like what it is, a coveted Boston power perch. The company that hired Cowan, ML Strategies, has long been one of the most important players in Boston and Washington, working at the intersection of politics and business.
Wholly owned by one of the nation’s most influential law firms, Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, the lobbying operation is overseen by company president Stephen P. Tocco, a former executive director of the Massachusetts Port Authority and former state economic affairs secretary. Last year Tocco, at 67, was looking for someone to eventually take his place, and he picked Cowan.
“I thought it was the right time to get someone who could start to come in and transition the business,” Tocco said. “There was no one here at that point that could at some change of date sit in my chair. That is why I went after Mo.”
Cowan, who was a corporate attorney at Mintz Levin before he joined the Patrick administration as legal counsel and chief of staff, now oversees a team of about 30 lobbyists and staff who work out of the ML Strategies office in Boston and its Washington branch on Pennsylvania Avenue, midway between the White House and the Capitol.
His hectic schedule is now a match for the company slogan: “From Beacon Hill to Capitol Hill.” Indeed, his Twitter account puts his location as “somewhere between BOS and DCA,” a reference to his travels to and from Washington’s Reagan National Airport.
The lobbying firm has represented a host of defense, energy, health care, and high-tech companies in Massachusetts and across the country, including the Biotechnology Industry Association, Cablevision, and Dow Corning.
Cowan was picked for the role in part due to his newfound Washington connections, as well as his work in the governor’s office. Under government ethics guidelines, Cowan is prohibited from lobbying his former colleagues or the Obama administration until the middle of next year.
He was separately barred under Massachusetts law from lobbying the governor’s office the year after his state service — a period that has expired. The federal limits are confined to direct lobbying by him; he is permitted to supervise ML’s Washington and Boston staffs and consult with clients.
Where and how that work might intersect with his task force role remains unclear. Cowan said in an interview that he viewed his role on the task force as helping to assemble information for the administration, and he leaves the decisions on how to proceed to the governor. The bond bill says the task force can recommend how the money is spent.
In what he called the “unlikely” event anything comes up that might be perceived as a conflict, Cowan said he would recuse himself “so as not to trigger any ethical trigger at all.”
Tocco said that if Cowan encountered anything in his task force role “that involved any client of ML Strategies, he would recuse himself, in terms of which recommendations are made. I think it’s a fair question. . . . I certainly will chat with Mo about the task force so I get myself up to speed on it.”
ML Strategies has a history of representing some of the defense contractors and construction firms that have performed work at Massachusetts military bases in recent years, according to a Globe review of lobbying disclosure reports.
One of its current clients is defense industry giant Lockheed Martin. That company holds a position on the board of directors of the Defense Technology Initiative, a trade association that is an adviser to the task force.
In 2013, ML Strategies was paid at least $80,000 to lobby on behalf of Lockheed Martin in Washington on “domestic acquisition and procurement policy,” according to public records. Lockheed Martin continues to be an ML client, Cowan’s office said.
Lockheed Martin is a significant and growing employer in the Bay State, particularly in an area that task force documents show the state has identified as a major investment area: cyber-security.
The company has 250 people at a facility in Marion that specializes in electronic warfare and communications and last month it announced it was acquiring Foxborough-based Industrial Defender, which specializes in protecting the computer systems of electric utilities, chemical plants, and oil and gas facilities.
The recent acquisition will bring to 700 the total number of Lockheed Martin employees from its various divisions now working in Massachusetts, according to Gordon Johndroe, a corporate spokesman. Johndroe said the company would not discuss its relationship with ML Strategies or Cowan, saying such information is of a competitive nature.
Documents obtained through a public records request also show that state agencies have hired an array of other lobbyists and consultants to work with the task force, some of whom also have defense industry interests, as part of its effort to keep the bases open.
The task force works in concert with the state’s quasi-public financing agency, MassDevelopment, which last year paid $200,000 to a lobbying firm, The Roosevelt Group, to try to influence the federal government to keep the bases open. That firm in turn paid at least $60,000 to ADS Ventures, a lobbying firm run by former US representative Chester Atkins of Massachusetts, to work on the issue. Atkins attended a Feb. 18 meeting of the task force, but state records do not indicate what he contributed to the discussion.
The website for ADS lists a number of defense contractors as clients, including some that sell outerwear and other military gear to the Natick Soldier Systems Center, which is responsible for outfitting troops, according to a review of lobby records and Army contract announcements.
Atkins declined comment for this article. His company issued a statement saying that ADS “has no clients that would directly benefit from the bond bill.”
Another key participant in the task force’s deliberations is retired Brigadier General Donald Quenneville, a former fighter pilot and Pentagon contracting official who once ran what was then called Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod.
Quenneville, who served as the task force’s executive director until last July, has attended task force meetings in his capacity as a $200-per-hour consultant for MassDevelopment. Among his responsibilities, according to a copy of his contract, is leading the task force’s effort to create a “cyber command” for the Massachusetts Air National Guard, a top goal of the task force.
At the same time, Quenneville runs his Falmouth-based defense consulting firm, Great Pointe Consulting, which he said has previously represented companies “in the cyber world and the like.” He declined to name those clients, citing confidentiality agreements.
Asked whether any of his clients could benefit from the task force’s work, he responded via e-mail: “Without knowing what the Task Force may propose [or] recommend in the future, it is impossible for me to answer this question with certainty. However, as it relates to my current client base, none would benefit from the current proposals.”
Quenneville already has taken credit for proposing one of the task force’s approved projects, a $2.9 million state investment to upgrade a computer laboratory at Hanscom that is designed to test new technologies that could protect communications systems from so-called cyber attacks.
Anne Marie Dowd, the executive vice president of Mass Development who signed the lobbying and consulting contracts, said her agency needed insiders to be “our eyes and ears down in Washington, D.C., with much more knowledge about what is happening in the Pentagon.”
The most overt role of the defense industry in the task force’s deliberations comes from the Waltham-based Defense Technology Initiative, which includes a number of military contractors. DTI lobbied for passage of the $177 million bond and also holds a seat on the task force as head of its subcommittee on business, industry, and military alignment, records show.
DTI’s president, Christopher R. Anderson, a Beacon Hill lobbyist, said the association has worked for nearly a decade trying to convince the state government of the importance of the bases to the regional economy, particularly its two largest, Hanscom and Natick.
He said those efforts “have helped guide state support for issues of importance to each base.”
As for Cowan, he has so far attended one of the task force’s quarterly meetings, shows up at some of the group’s public events, and keeps in regular contact with state officials by telephone and email.
A small example of how Cowan has used his position is contained in an internal e-mail, obtained under a public records request, that he sent in February to the task force’s executive director, Adam Freudberg.
Cowan wrote that “you will hear from Herby Duverne of Taino Consulting. He’s interested in learning more about the task force.” Duverne, a former top Massachusetts Port Authority official, is the chief operating officer of Taino, a Boston-based consulting firm that advises corporate and government clients on cyber security and project management.
Duverne said in an interview that he made the overture to Cowan in hopes of promoting his business interests.
“I know Senator Cowan very well,” Duverne said in an interview. “We reached out as a business development piece. It was more my curiosity of what they do and how they are aligned with what I do.”
Nothing has come of it so far, Duverne said. “I would love to be on the task force but they haven’t asked me yet,” he said. Cowan said through a spokeswoman that he merely helped Duverne get information about the task force.
The task force has held some public forums, but its deliberations are private and no minutes are kept of those sessions, according to state officials. The task force’s informal structure means it doesn’t take recorded votes, making it difficult for the public to follow how it makes its recommendations.
The mandate of the task force — recommending possible base improvements to the governor — contrasts with the structure of a similar effort in Connecticut. That state passed a $40 million bond bill to help retain the Naval Submarine Base in Groton. The Connecticut group asks the military what it needs at the shipyard and then sends a check to the Navy, which either does the work itself or contracts it out.
“When people knew I had this bond authorization, my phone was ringing a lot, and so I made it very clear there’s only one person that can approach me with a project, and that’s the commanding officer of the submarine base,” said Bob Ross, executive director of Connecticut’s Office of Military Affairs. That, he said, “ensures the integrity of the program.”
Indeed, even some members of the Massachusetts task force expressed concerns about the way it is set up.
“What I’m worried about is once we get all of these thousands of ideas, how do we properly vet them, prioritize them, and what makes sense?” said Major General Scott “Catfish” Rice, adjutant general of the Massachusetts National Guard and a member of the task force.
Rice said that while he hopes the bond bill will create a “model” for collaboration, he also is concerned that “there is a dark side to it. If you let it go and it falls into a small group’s hands and nobody is watching them, there is a dark side of power and money that I am always fearful of.”
Patrick, who created the task force, declined requests for an interview to discuss its workings, or his appointment of Cowan. Instead, his office issued a statement from Patrick’s chief of staff, Brendan Ryan, saying that the task force plays “an important role” gathering information, and that “any project recommended for funding by the Task Force must, among other things, serve a purpose beyond their military use and contribute to the economic growth of the region.”
Peace group surprised
The effort to pass the $177 million bond bill began with little notice and seemingly little controversy. The most significant public opposition came from Cole Harrison, executive director of Cambridge-based Massachusetts Peace Action.
Harrison’s group had played a key role in 2012 in passage of a “Budget For All” referendum in 91 Massachusetts cities and towns that called for massive cuts in defense spending and increases in social service. The measure passed overwhelmingly in every jurisdiction where it was on the ballot, but Harrison said he has gotten nowhere trying to get the Legislature to vote on a similar proposal.
So Harrison said he felt “blindsided” when he learned last year that the same legislators who were ignoring his Budget For All proposal were preparing to vote on the military bond bill. He had heard nothing about it until it was mentioned in passing by a legislator.
“There was little to no publicity and the bill kept moving through the process without us or the public knowing it,” Harrison said. When he learned that the bill was coming before the House Committee on Bonding, he testified on Sept. 11, 2013, expressing concern that there was no explanation in the measure about how the money would be spent.
“It is not a very accountable or transparent way to spend the money,” he said.
The committee chairman, Representative Antonio F. D. Cabral, said in an interview that he also had concerns about the lack of specifics about how money would be spent. The Patrick administration, according to Cabral, said that “they didn’t want to have their hands tied to a specific amount to a specific facility.”
Cabral came up with a compromise under which the Legislature must receive 30 days’ notice of a proposed expenditure, with the right to block it.
After the measure passed the House by a 150-to-0 vote and moved to the Senate, Patrick, Tsongas, and Cowan waged what amounted to a counteroffensive to Peace Action. In their role as cochairs of the task force, they coauthored an op-ed article that was published in the online edition of the Globe on Jan. 17 under the headline, “Massachusetts is the hub of military innovation.”
The article included a line that captured the political crosswinds over defense spending: it said that Massachusetts was at the center of both “modernizing our force and reducing military spending.”
Only two senators voted against the measure, and Patrick signed it in March.
A lobbyist works the room
Shortly after the bill became law, a reception was held on Capitol Hill that proved a big draw for those who work the Boston-Washington power axis.
The guests included members of the New England congressional delegation, lobbyists, and business members of the event’s sponsor, the New England Council, which has a defense group that has advised the task force. Then, in walked the man with a sticker on his jacket that said: “Mo Cowan, ML Strategies.”
To outsiders, the affiliation might have seemed innocuous, but in this setting, it was well known that he was a former senator who was now chief operating officer of an influential lobbying company and cochairman of a task force that will recommend how to distribute $177 million. A sizable number of people at the event had, like Cowan, gone through the revolving door of government to lobbying and consulting firms.
Cowan was mobbed at the March 26 event in the Kennedy Caucus Room, named for the late Massachusetts senator, a man legendary for his ability to steer federal dollars to his home state. Cowan returned the enthusiasm, smiling, shaking hands, posing for pictures.
Most of the guests greeted Cowan by the title he had held for six months: “Senator.”
Cowan, meanwhile, said he has no plans to leave the task force, and sees no need to consider doing so. He said his work is “as a volunteer to help the governor, the administration, to try to do what’s best for the Massachusetts economy.”
Trying to keep the military bases open, he said, “is just a means to the end of continuing to improve the economic standing of the Commonwealth, which is my concern.”
Bryan Bender can be reached at email@example.com.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this article said that William “Mo” Cowan was appointed to fill the remainder of Senator John Kerry’s term. Cowan held that seat until a special election.