Currying favor with politicians and selling access to them… for tens of millions of dollars a year. Parties, mansions, globe trotting and zero accountability. Where do I sign up? There’s just the small problem of how I’d sleep at night… on mattress stuffed with Benjamins of course!
@pfury you handle the lefty clients and I’ll deal with the righty ones. We could call the firm Jekyll and Hyde.
Lest anyone say “haha slimy democrats!” remember that all sides of the establishment feed at the lobbyist trough. In fact it was Podesta that helped Manafort work with the Ukrainian “non-profit” that got him in trouble.
The part of the story that made me angriest was the way he just left his employees to twist in the wind. I mean it’s one thing to be a two-faced power broker… but c’mon man! take care of your people:
Tony Podesta was in line to be king of K Street.
His lobbying firm ended 2015 as the third largest in Washington, D.C., with nearly $30 million in revenue from more than 100 clients, spanning Alphabet Inc.’s Google to Wells Fargo & Co. With his longtime friend Hillary Clinton expected to win the White House, 2016 promised to be even better.
Mr. Podesta, a conspicuous presence in his red shoes and Italian suits, hosted lawmakers and power brokers at his flat in Venice during the Art Biennale. It was one of many homes around the globe, including the Washington mansion where he displayed a collection of museum-grade artwork. In early 2016, he was ready to buy a $7.4 million condo overlooking Madison Square Park in New York City.
Tony Podesta dancing a year ago at the National Museum of Women in the Arts 30th Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C.
Tony Podesta dancing a year ago at the National Museum of Women in the Arts 30th Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C. Photo: Erin Schaff for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Then he fell, a calamitous collapse propelled by unexpected blows, delivered by fate and made worse by hubris. Financial problems, legal threats and the election of President Donald Trump took it all away—the clients, the firm and, finally, Mr. Podesta’s position as one of Washington’s most influential players.
His troubles, some long hidden, surfaced in the summer of 2016. The Podesta Group lost its banker over news the firm did work for the U.S. subsidiary of a Russian bank under sanctions. Then came headlines that the firm’s work with Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, and an associate may have violated government rules. And in October, WikiLeaks published 20,000 pages of emails stolen from his brother John Podesta, chairman of Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign.
The string of embarrassing news accounts disturbed many of the Podesta Group’s corporate clients, companies that preferred to stay clear of such publicity. Mr. Podesta operated as if the whole mess would soon blow over.
He spent most of the fall traveling the world. He returned to the U.S. on Election Day but skipped Mrs. Clinton’s campaign party. Her victory would go a long way to fixing many of his problems. She lost that night, and Mr. Podesta, like many who had banked on her victory, did too.
Clients who had hired him for access to a new Clinton administration fell away. By the end of the year, the departures cost the firm more than $10 million in annual business, according to an internal Podesta Group accounting viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
Hillary Clinton and John Podesta in Washington, D.C., a month after Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election.
Hillary Clinton and John Podesta in Washington, D.C., a month after Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in the 2016 presidential election. Photo: Tom Williams/Congressional Quarterly/ZUMA PRESS
Years of spending on art, vacations and real estate left Mr. Podesta overleveraged and deeply in debt when he finally closed the doors of his 62-person firm at the end of last year. He is selling his New York City condo, along with some of his prized sculptures.
Mr. Podesta responded to questions through a spokeswoman for the Podesta Group. Mr. Podesta’s clients, colleagues, friends, and “even many of his political adversaries through the years continue to rely on his wise counsel,” the spokeswoman said. “When he stepped down from the firm he expressed his ongoing gratitude to all of them and his commitment to continue his advocacy for the issues and ideals he’s always fought for.”
This account of Mr. Podesta’s rise and fall is based on interviews with dozens of former employees of his firm and his associates, as well as internal financial documents, calendars and communications viewed by the Journal.
Anthony Thomas Podesta, 74 years old, and his younger brother John grew up in Chicago, raised by first-generation parents from Italy and Greece. Their father, who didn’t finish high school, operated a cardboard-cutting machine in a factory that made advertising displays for grocery stores.
The brothers gravitated to politics, working with Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham on the 1970 Senate campaign of a Democratic Party candidate in Connecticut. They moved to Washington, D.C., where the brothers attended law school at Georgetown University and then worked in government—John in the Justice Department, and Tony in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.
They founded Podesta Associates, a lobbying firm, in 1987. John Podesta left in 1993 to work in the Clinton White House, later rising to chief of staff.
Tony and Heather Podesta at home in 2004, with ‘The Arch of Hysteria’ by Louise Bourgeois and, in back, an untitled photo by Michal Rovner.
Tony and Heather Podesta at home in 2004, with ‘The Arch of Hysteria’ by Louise Bourgeois and, in back, an untitled photo by Michal Rovner. Photo: Robert A. Reeder/Washington Post/Getty Images
Tony Podesta built up his lobbying firm over the years—renamed the Podesta Group in 2007—with such blue-chip clients as General Electric Co. , Boeing Co. and the Washington trade group for the U.S. drug industry.
At age 59, he married Heather Miller, a congressional staffer 26 years younger. The April 2003 marriage was his second, her third. Mrs. Podesta started her own lobbying firm, Heather Podesta + Partners, and they emerged a Washington power couple. In 2006, they bought a $4 million home in the upscale Kalorama neighborhood and spent millions more renovating it to showcase their art collection.
The Kalorama house—two doors from where the Obamas now live—was the crown jewel of Mr. Podesta’s real estate portfolio that over the years included apartments in New York City, the Venice flat, and houses in Sydney and Tasmania as well as on Lake Barcroft in Virginia. He owned a townhouse on Capitol Hill for entertaining and fundraising.
Mr. Podesta drew an annual salary of more than $2 million and made millions more in commissions and bonuses. He and Heather Podesta together donated more money to the Democratic Party and its candidates than any other Washington lobbyists in the past decade, fundraising records show.
Tony Podesta’s home in the Kalorama neighborhood of Washington, D.C., two doors from the Obamas, left; his house on Lake Barcroft in Virginia; and a townhouse on Capitol Hill, right. Photos: Jason Andrew for The Wall Street Journal(3)
The Podesta Group grew from the 20th largest lobbying firm to third in three years, in terms of domestic and foreign lobbying revenues, propelled by business during President Barack Obama’s first term. The leap was impressive, given competition from global giants that employed hundreds. During the Obama administration, the Podesta Group took in more than $40 million a year at its peak. The firm leased $200,000-a-month offices on two floors, joined by a custom spiral staircase.
Mr. Podesta operated as a lifestyle concierge for clients. He had a regular table at Tosca, a popular Italian restaurant, and was part-owner of Centrolina, an Italian restaurant in a new billion-dollar development.
The Podestas’ 1,300-piece art collection included photographs by Andreas Gursky, as well as eight sculptures by Louise Bourgeois valued at an estimated $25 million. The Podestas donated Shepard Fairey’s original “Hope” portrait of Mr. Obama to the National Portrait Gallery.
Washington’s Kings of Clout
Top lobbying firms ranked by annual fees
Akin, Gump et al
Brownstein, Hyatt et al
Squire Patton Boggs
Holland & Knight
Cornerstone Government Affairs
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
“Tony’s view of investment diversification is multiple artists,” Mrs. Podesta said in a 2004 Washington Post profile with the headline “Married with Art.”
The IRS determined that in 2007 and 2008, the Podesta Group paid more than $300,000 for the shipping and handling of art bought by Mr. Podesta—money that was improperly reported as a business expense, according to documents viewed by the Journal. Later, Mr. Podesta began billing his firm $360,000 a year to rent pieces displayed at the office. The firm also paid part of the salary of Mr. Podesta’s art curator.
Employees of the Podesta Group set up a system to prevent Mr. Podesta from being reimbursed by the company for personal expenditures. A 36-page instruction manual for Mr. Podesta’s executive assistants included this directive: “It is up to you and your best judgment as to what gets reimbursed.”
Mr. Podesta’s passion for art drove a wedge in the marriage after Mrs. Podesta learned he was secretly making purchases, according to people familiar with the matter. In 2014, the couple filed for divorce, with the art collection caught in a legal tug of war.
In the settlement, Mr. Podesta kept most of the collection. He gave up homes in Washington and Manhattan, and nearly $5 million in retirement savings. He agreed to pay his former wife $200,000 every three months for five years.
Workers install Shepard Fairey’s portrait of President-elect Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., before Mr. Obama’s inauguration in January 2009.
Workers install Shepard Fairey’s portrait of President-elect Barack Obama at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., before Mr. Obama’s inauguration in January 2009. Photo: Jewel SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images
The day the divorce was final in July 2014, Mr. Podesta took a loan from Citigroup Inc., using some of his art as collateral, public records show. That month, Mr. Podesta told senior employees the firm could make more money by agreeing to represent clients unpopular with Democrats, such as tobacco companies and the National Rifle Association.
The discussion prompted one lobbyist to quit, costing the firm more than $2 million in yearly revenue from his former clients, according to public records and former employees.
Firm employees approached Mr. Podesta in early 2014 about selling them a share of the business. The Podesta Group was worth at least $50 million at the time, former employees estimated. Over dinner, Mr. Podesta told them he was open to the idea and suggested they meet with lawyers.
On the day of the meeting, employees gathered in the firm’s conference room. Mr. Podesta didn’t show.
Mr. Podesta sought out higher-paying clients, including foreign governments, according to public disclosure reports. By 2015, the year after his divorce, Mr. Podesta had doubled his overseas business from four years earlier to $5 million. Firm clients included the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the Republic of Iraq and the government of South Sudan, according to foreign-agent reports filed with the Justice Department.
D.C. Power Couple
Tony Podesta and Heather Podesta together donated more money to the Democratic Party and its candidates than any other Washington lobbyists in the past decade.
Source: Center for Responsive Politics
Mr. Podesta worked for some clients without his firm’s knowledge. In November 2015, he signed up the U.S. subsidiary of Pirelli, the Italian tire maker, for $113,500 a year, according to the contract. The Podesta Group had represented the U.S. operations of Michelin, the French tire manufacturer, since 2009. Neither Michelin nor its Podesta Group lobbyists knew about Mr. Podesta’s side deal, according to the people involved.
“Mr. Podesta served on an international business council for Pirelli whose sole focus was advising on trends in regions and countries outside the United States,” the spokeswoman for the Podesta Group said.
According to former employees, the Podesta Group did public relations work in 2015 for Raffaello Follieri, an Italian businessman who had pleaded guilty to swindling millions of dollars from an investment fund run partly by Mr. Clinton, one of Mr. Podesta’s early patrons. Mr. Podesta later joined the board of Mr. Follieri’s investment fund.
During the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Podesta helped raise money for Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, including a fundraising event at his Kalorama house, featuring food by well-known chefs. However deep his financial hole, a Clinton victory would relieve much of the pressure.
Then came the summer of bad news. SunTrust Banks Inc. sought to sever ties with the firm over the sanctioned Russian bank. The Podesta Group’s chief executive sent an exasperated email to a colleague. “Tony thinks these types of clients have no repercussions on the firm,” she said, but “this should really provide evidence that we have to take the clients we bring on seriously.”
Following Mrs. Clinton’s defeat that November, the Podesta Group cut bonuses and commissions.
When employees returned to the office after the holidays they were greeted by a new art display Mr. Podesta had installed: “Shifting Degrees of Certainty.”
Early in 2012, Mr. Manafort and his associate Richard Gates, longtime Republican lobbyists, hired the Podesta Group and another firm to lobby on behalf of the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, a nonprofit. The Podesta Group registered as a domestic lobbyist for the Centre.
Over the next two years, the Podesta Group was paid more than $1 million for its work, which would later prove to be costly.
In April 2017, the Podesta Group filed a report with the Justice Department acknowledging its work “could be interpreted as principally benefiting a foreign government.” In his February guilty plea, Mr. Gates admitted he had arranged for the Centre to “represent falsely” that it wasn’t supervised by the Ukrainian government.
Law-enforcement officials subpoenaed the Podesta Group and several of its lobbyists. Mr. Podesta offered to have the firm pay employees’ legal fees.
Heather and Tony Podesta at a 2011 summer party in Washington, D.C…
Heather and Tony Podesta at a 2011 summer party in Washington, D.C… Photo: Rebecca D’Angelo/Washington Post/Getty Images
As special counsel Robert Mueller dug into the Ukraine work, the string of headlines and ongoing federal probe chased off Podesta Group clients. Compounding the firm’s troubles, it lost the governments of Iraq, Vietnam and Kosovo in May and June, which, since 2012, had paid $6 million. At the end of May, Mr. Podesta moved into his new condo in New York City.
Employees again approached Mr. Podesta about buying the firm. Over a three-hour dinner on Aug. 7, Mr. Podesta apologized for the pain he had caused them and said again that he would consider selling. By week’s end he was at the French beach town of Saint-Pierre-Quiberon for a vacation.
Before dawn on Monday Oct. 23, 2017, NBC News reported that Mr. Mueller was preparing to indict Mr. Manafort and implicate Mr. Podesta regarding the Ukraine work. The phones started ringing: Clients wanted to know what was going on. The firm’s bank wanted to discuss its account.
The following night, Mr. Podesta threw himself a birthday party, serving hundreds of guests pizza from a brick-oven stove in his backyard in Kalorama.
On Friday that week, news outlets reported that Mr. Mueller’s first indictments would be unveiled Monday. Mr. Podesta talked with employees over the weekend. Some planned to quit and take their clients. On Saturday afternoon, he attended a surprise 70th birthday party for Mrs. Clinton.
On Monday, Oct. 30, U.S. prosecutors announced the indictment of Messrs. Manafort and Gates. The indictment alleged the Podesta Group, identified as “Company B,” had worked with them for Ukraine. Mr. Podesta in a staff meeting said he would step back from the firm.
The following day, an official with the firm’s new bank, Chain Bridge Bank, demanded $655,000 in cash or collateral within 24 hours—or it would cut the firm’s credit line.
Mr. Trump, who occasionally pointed an unwelcome spotlight on the firm, tweeted that day: “The biggest story yesterday, the one that has the Dems in a dither, is Podesta running from his firm.”
With clients leaving, the Podesta Group had no money. Rent was due the next day. One idea was to use Mr. Podesta’s art collection as collateral for a loan, but he refused.
“At that time, it was inadvisable to provide additional guarantees as an individual for the obligations of the corporation,” the Podesta Group’s spokeswoman said.
That night, Mr. Podesta ducked out to a birthday party for former Republican Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who gave him a hug. “He did good quality work,” Mr. Barbour said.
The Podesta Group’s chief financial officer sent Mr. Podesta a 7:23 p.m. email: “If we don’t have collateral pledged prior to 5pm tomorrow, we will be in default.” If the firm went into default, the CFO wrote, “we will not be able to meet our rent, your art payments, ad campaigns, and most importantly payroll.”
Mr. Podesta responded: “need list of next 5 layoffs,” among other questions. The next day, he left for an art show in Turin, Italy. The bank’s deadline passed.
By the end of the workweek, Wells Fargo, Walmart Inc., and Oracle Corp. had quit the Podesta Group. Some employees packed up personal items from their desks.
On Friday, the firm’s CFO quit. That night, a senior manager sent an email to Mr. Podesta, still in Italy, saying the bank had frozen the firm’s funds.
“This means that we have no way to pay employees,” the email said. “If we do not alert employees immediately that we have no way to pay them for their work, the firm is committing fraud.”
In response, Mr. Podesta said he would call the bank.
‘Torso, self portrait,’ a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois at a 2006 exhibition in Spain.
‘Torso, self portrait,’ a sculpture by Louise Bourgeois at a 2006 exhibition in Spain. Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP/Getty Images
“At this point, there’s no money to meet payroll on the 15th so you should plan to have staff meeting on Monday to alert the staff,” the manager replied.
Mr. Podesta responded from Italy that he was “not going into personal bankruptcy” to keep the firm afloat.
On Wednesday the following week, movers began taking down Mr. Podesta’s art from the office walls.
On Thursday evening, Kimberley Fritts, the firm’s chief executive, told the staff the Podesta Group was closing. Employees would get their last paycheck in six days. Health-care coverage would cease by year’s end.
As Ms. Fritts broke the news, Mr. Podesta was in New York for the rollout of a fashion calendar published by Pirelli, his personal client. The two-day bash was capped by a black-tie dinner with Naomi Campbell, Sean “Diddy” Combs and other celebrities.
Before closing the firm’s doors, Mr. Podesta gave himself an advance on his lobbying commissions.
—Kelly Crow, Christina Rexrode, Jim Oberman, Lisa Schwartz and Aruna Viswanatha contributed to this article.