All bases covered at ML Strategies

Firm includes an all-star cast of former government officials

(Updated October 20, 2015. A correction was added to the chart of leading lobbying firms.)

Photographs by Frank Curran

IT WAS CRUNCH TIME in the battle for a Greater Boston casino license potentially worth billions of dollars. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission was seeking some final feedback from the two finalists, Wynn Resorts and Mohegan Sun, and their approaches couldn’t have been more different. Mohegan Sun put forward Mitchell Etess, the CEO of the company, and Doug Pardon, a partner at financial backer Brigade Capital. Wynn countered with Kim Sinatra, the company’s flamboyant legal counsel, and Bill Weld, the former twice-elected governor of Massachusetts.

Etess and Pardon gave a fairly dry, 20-minute presentation focusing on the preferred and common equity in their deal and marketing zones for the proposed casino. Sinatra put on a hard sell, underscoring her company’s strong financial position and noting that Wynn’s nongaming revenues make it more than just a casino company. She also walked back a defiant letter from her boss Steve Wynn about the design of his hotel and tried to ease concerns about the Las Vegas company’s rocky relationship with the city of Boston. “I will tell you that sometimes discipline and passion are taken for unfriendliness or lack of collaboration, but that is not our intent,” she said.

With Wynn’s time allotment running out, Sinatra turned the microphone over to Weld, her closer. “The company has something of a reputation as a blue-chip within the industry. I think it’s earned,” the former governor said of Wynn. “In dealing with these folks, you take a bite of sirloin, you take another bite, it’s still sirloin. It doesn’t vary.”

Weld’s sirloin blessing didn’t come free. The former governor works as an attorney at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo and as a lobbyist at its wholly owned subsidiary, ML Strategies. Both firms are employed by Wynn Resorts, which has relied heavily on the two companies for advice and access to key officials in its nearly six-year quest to open a casino in Massachusetts. In the process, Wynn Resorts has become ML Strategies’ biggest client, and the high-stakes casino fight has thrust the lobbying firm out of the shadows and into the spotlight.

Many see ML Strategies as a firm with every base covered on Beacon Hill. In addition to Weld, ML Strategies employs a former US senator, a former state senator, and a host of former government officials with connections inside federal, state, and local government. The company has very close ties to Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration, House Speaker Robert DeLeo, and key leaders in the Senate. Those ties are what attract clients, but officials at ML Strategies say their role is more problem-solver than influence peddler, that what they know is as important as who they know.

Lobbying competitors are of two minds. Some say (on background, of course) that ML Strategies is fat and slow and survives on crumbs from the parent law firm. Others say the firm is slow yet smart and scary-powerful in an understated sort of way, as Weld demonstrated a year ago before the Gaming Commission.

Former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld

Former Massachusetts governor William F. Weld

Weld says he was talking that day as Wynn’s legal counsel and not as its lobbyist. Whichever hat he was wearing, he was someone every member of the Gaming Commission knew, some better than others. One of the commissioners worked in Weld’s Office of Business Development. Another knew Weld from their days as libel lawyers in Boston.

Sinatra says the former governor’s endorsement was important. “I think the people of Massachusetts think he’s a straight shooter and they believe that he wouldn’t put his credibility on the line for something he didn’t believe in, even if it’s his job. He’s a guy with a higher ethical compass than that,” she says.

“Pure persuasion,” Weld says when asked about his role that day. “That’s what I saw my role being at that hearing, to persuade them that my client should get the award.” In the end, the closer got his save, as the commission voted 3-1 in favor of Wynn’s $1.7 billion casino proposal.

IT’S PART OF THE DNA

Most law firms don’t do politics well, but politics has been a big part of Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo right from the start. The law firm was founded during the Great Depression when two Jewish lawyers who knew they were never going to make partner at old-line (and WASPy) Hale and Dorr opened their own firm. Over time, Mintz Levin has grown to become one of Boston’s biggest law firms, with eight offices and more than 500 attorneys.

In 1991, Mintz Levin moved directly into politics, opening ML Strategies, a subsidiary focused on government relations work. Mintz Levin wasn’t the first big Boston law firm to open its own lobbying shop, but it’s the only one to succeed long-term at it. Many credit the law firm’s chairman, Robert Popeo, for that.  Popeo is a Boston institution, a rainmaker who combines East Boston street-smarts with stunning legal skills. He’s a guy who feels just as comfortable moderating a panel discussion with General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt , a long-time client of the firm, as he is playing hardball with federal prosecutors.

While many of his fellow Boston attorneys disdain politics, Popeo embraces it. “I don’t find it messy,” he says.  “Look, we’re in the problem-solving business, whether it’s legal, public relations, government relations, permitting, or whatever. It’s all part of being a full-service firm.”

Mintz Levin regularly hosts fundraisers for politicians, where members of the law firm, ML Strategies, and their clients schmooze with elected officials. The firm held a fundraiser for House Speaker DeLeo on March 12 that raised more than $25,000 and a fundraiser for Baker on May 26 that raised close to $30,000. All of the top Mintz Levin and ML Strategies employees contributed, with one exception: William (Mo) Cowan, the chief operating officer of ML Strategies and the former chief of staff to governor Deval Patrick, didn’t donate to Baker. Cowan says he attended and supported the Baker fundraiser, but chose not to contribute because of how a donation to Baker from a Democrat might be viewed. “I have to be thoughtful about that,” he says.

Mintz Levin and ML Strategies officials also get involved more directly with politicians. Popeo represented DeLeo when the US Attorney’s office came hunting for his scalp in the Probation corruption scandal; no charges were ever filed against the Speaker. Meanwhile, Steve Tocco, the president and chief executive of ML Strategies, has played a pro bono, behind-the-scenes role in a number of leadership fights on Beacon Hill.

Cowan says the openness to politics at Mintz Levin is what attracted him to the firm in the first place, even though he had to apply three times before he was hired.  “One of the reasons I came to Mintz Levin as a lawyer years ago was because they were one of the firms who demonstrated by word and deed that they understood and appreciated the marriage, the merger, between law and government and politics,” he says. “It’s part of the Mintz Levin DNA.”

Cowan left Mintz Levin in 2009 to become then-Gov. Deval Patrick’s legal counsel and later his chief of staff. In January 2013, Patrick appointed him an interim US senator, filling John Kerry’s seat until after the 2014 election. After his brief stint in Washington, Cowan came back to Mintz Levin, this time as the COO of ML Strategies.

The 70-year-old Weld, who joined Mintz Levin and ML Strategies in 2012, likes the vibe. “In many law firms, most of the senior lawyers think that politics is kind of like poison and if you touch it, you’ll get cancer. Most of them resist any notion of deep involvement in political and civic affairs. Mintz Levin is just the opposite. You want somebody to take a table, you call 542-6000,” he says, rattling off the firm’s phone number and using shorthand lingo for sponsoring a table at a charity dinner. “The philosophy of Bob Popeo and Steve Tocco is you have to play at the civic level in order to be a real force in this town.”

Tocco, the 68-year-old leader of ML Strategies, has an unusual back story. He got a pharmacy degree in the 1970s, but found his way into politics working on the first congressional campaign of his Malden neighbor Ed Markey. That campaign work morphed into a job in Markey’s Washington office and a close, odd-couple friendship between the conservative Tocco and the liberal Markey. “He used to call me his conservative conscience,” says Tocco.

ML Strategies CEO Stephen Tocco

ML Strategies CEO Stephen Tocco

Tocco eventually left Markey’s office to run a controversial nonunion contracting group called Associated Builders and Contractors. Shortly before the Republican state convention in 1986, ABC revealed that it had fired GOP gubernatorial candidate Greg Hyatt as a consultant because of erratic behavior that included staring into space, talking on the phone when no one was on the other end, and twice appearing naked in the office.  One of the all-time-great press conferences in Massachusetts history was Tocco in front of a roomful of reporters explaining Hyatt’s degree of undress.

At the contracting group, Tocco drifted in the orbit of a lot of the state’s top Republicans, including Paul Cellucci. Tocco says he suggested to Cellucci that he and Weld should team up in the 1990 race for governor, which they did. Tocco, somewhat radioactive in political circles because of his nonunion contracting ties, says he became a behind-the-scenes campaign advisor to Weld and Cellucci. When they won the election, Tocco moved out of the shadows, becoming a senior advisor to Weld and Cellucci and later Weld’s secretary of economic affairs. From 1993 to 1997, he was the CEO of Massport, where he opened a series of state offices abroad and ran a strong patronage operation at home.

Popeo came calling after Tocco’s exit from Massport. Tocco initially resisted but then came aboard at ML Strategies, taking command of the company in 1999. He did away with hourly billing and shifted to set retainers that start at $6,000 a month. He says the retainer approach grew out of his experience at Massport, where consultants were everywhere. “That always drove me crazy at the Port Authority,” he says. “You pay these people by the hour and it’s fricking ridiculous.”

Tocco also brought with him a hustler mentality and a personal touch for business. He likes to wine and dine clients at Limoncello in the North End, where he lives. Even though many of his competitors say most of his clients come through the law firm, Tocco says three-quarters of them are unique to ML Strategies. He says his strength is his ability to understand the needs of business and government and find common ground between them.

“The clients we serve the best are the ones who come in from out of state,” he says in his office on the 42d floor of One Financial Center. “They look at what goes on [in Massachusetts] and they, like, roll their eyes. They say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ So they really need someone to help them walk through this maze of whether it be regulation, public relations, regulatory challenges, legislative challenges. It’s a complicated place to get things done. And that’s sort of the role I like to play.”

RARELY ON BEACON HILL

Tocco, Cowan, and Weld are lobbyists who say they almost never go to the State House.

“The business has changed,” says Tocco. “I don’t think relationship lobbying is effective anymore. I don’t think it works. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have relationships. Relationships, quite frankly, are what build the trust factor. We will bring credibility to a client because people have come to trust us. But you also have to have breadth and depth in the subject matter. You know, 10 to 15 years ago, you could go to [former state senator] Biff MacLean and he’d get an amendment in there without ever reading it. You can’t do that anymore.”

Cowan is on the same page. “Two things matter in this very competitive business,” he says. “One, and this used to be the dominant thing, what relationships do you have, and can they afford your client the opportunity to get in front of the right people to make their case and ask the right question? The other is domain or subject matter expertise. It’s not enough to just have one. You’ve got to have both.”

ML Strategies is built around relationships and expertise. The Washington office has eight staffers who all have experience in government or trade groups. The office is led by David Leiter, who previously worked at the Department of Energy and as chief of staff to John Kerry when he was a US senator.

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In Boston, there are 12 staffers. Two, Julie Cox and George Atanasov, monitor Beacon Hill. There are five specialists in public relations (Nancy Sterling), energy (David O’Connor, who headed the state’s Division of Energy Resources from 1995 through 2007; environmental and permitting issues (Richard J. Lyman, an official in the Weld and Cellucci administrations); development (Robert Ryan, a former head of the Boston Redevelopment Authority); and transportation (Stephen Silveira, a veteran of the MBTA and the former head of the state Transportation Finance Commission.)

Despite being a lobbyist, Silveira is so well known for his transportation expertise that he was appointed in 2013 to the state’s Project Selection Advisory Council, which generated a report in July on developing criteria for prioritizing transportation investments. That sort of access undoubtedly is attractive to clients.

The five remaining people in the Boston office — Tocco, Cowan, Weld, former state senator Steven Baddour of Methuen, and former Senate Ways and Means Committee staffer Daniel Connelly — are there because of their contacts and knowledge of how government works.

The client list at ML Strategies centers around energy, transportation, health care, development, and telecommunications, but there are a host of customers who don’t fit neatly in those categories, including Boston University, Johnson & Johnson, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The hiring of Baddour brings in a bunch of new clients, including Steward Health Care, State Street Bank, Staples, athenahealth, and AT&T.

Sometimes, ML Strategies ends up representing clients with potentially competing interests. On Beacon Hill, for example, advocates for different types of power are clamoring to be included in the region’s energy mix. Some environmentalists fear it’s a zero-sum game — that more natural gas will mean less solar and wind. ML Strategies is representing clients on all sides of the issue, including solar, wind, biomass, Canadian hydropower, oil, and natural gas.

When he was governor, Weld says he welcomed lobbyists to his office. “I was always happy to see lobbyists because they might give me some information that was relevant to the decision we had to make,” he says. “I could spot the phonies. They wouldn’t come back a second time.”

But Weld and Tocco say they don’t try to meet with Baker on behalf of their clients, in part because the relationship between the three of them is so close. Tocco and Baker served as cabinet secretaries under Weld and Weld is Baker’s political mentor, going so far as to appear in commercials with Baker during his successful run for governor last year.

“We just try to stay away from Charlie,” says Tocco. “I haven’t talked with Charlie about an issue since he’s been governor, and neither has Weld. We don’t want to put him in that position. Now, if we’re working on something, do they think we have good judgment and high integrity? They probably do. They probably know us better than they know some other people.”

Weld did meet with Baker along with former governor Michael Dukakis in September. The three talked about a North-South rail link, a policy priority of the two former governors.

Some of Baker’s energy views track closely with those of ML Strategies clients. For example, Baker wants to import hydropower from Canada and he favors expanding existing natural gas pipeline capacity in the region. His administration is exploring having electric utility customers pay for these types of energy projects.

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“We have a view, which happens to coincide with Gov. Baker’s view, on how we’re going to make up for the fact that Massachusetts is at the end of the pipeline,” says Weld. “The current battleground is gas. Five years ago, gas was the favorite child of the environmental movement because it wasn’t coal and it wasn’t oil. Those days are over. Now it’s a member of the hated fossil fuel community. Some in the environmental movement think everything is going to be wind and solar before long. It reminds me of the 1960s and all my fellow hippies in Cambridge saying, if only we could all love each other. I do think hydro is going to play a major role and soon.”

Weld also notes that ML Strategies represents Spectra Energy, which wants to expand its Algonquin pipeline. “That’s a pretty easy sell,” he says. “There are issues with it, but conceptually it’s a fairly easy sell except for the people who now suddenly don’t like natural gas because it’s a member of the fossil club, which I think is not a well-taken position. It’s going to be a long time before that point of view becomes relevant.”

In discussing Wynn’s success in landing a long-delayed environmental certificate from the Baker administration, Weld says the key was a letter written by state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack that concluded the Las Vegas developer had met its traffic mitigation obligations. “Once Secretary Pollack filed her letter, the die was pretty much cast. I was actually the person who recommended Stephanie Pollack to Charlie,” Weld says. The ex-governor then adds a detail that goes a ways toward explaining the power of networks and circles of influence. Weld says he never personally met Pollack, but recommended her “with a pretty good sendoff” because Doug Foy had recommended her. Foy runs an environmental consulting firm and previously worked as a top aide to former governor Mitt Romney.

WYNN THE LONG-SHOT

When the scramble for casino licenses began in Massachusetts, nearly every political insider thought Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the owner of Suffolk Downs, had the Greater Boston license in the bag. The primary owners of the track, Joe O’Donnell and Richard Fields, had former mayor Thomas Menino on their side and a fleet of lobbyists on the payroll. In an interview in early 2014, Steve Wynn told CommonWealth that O’Donnell had told him several times he was never going to win the license. Wynn said another Suffolk Downs investor, Steve Roth, told him “we’re going to kick your ass.”

Interestingly, ML Strategies was part of the Suffolk Downs team in 2007 and 2008. Lobbying records indicate the company did some traffic analysis and community relations work for Suffolk Downs in East Boston, before the two companies parted ways in 2008. The company then signed on with Wynn Resorts. “We had choices [in the casino sweepstakes],” says Popeo, “but we thought they were the best.”

Popeo says he represented Steve Wynn himself on a personal matter some 35 years before. He also knew Sinatra, Wynn’s legal counsel, from her work at other gaming companies prior to joining Wynn. Sinatra says she had hired Tocco sometime between 2001 and 2003 when she was working at a company that would later morph into Caesar’s Entertainment Corp. (Caesar’s later went on to partner with Suffolk Downs before being tossed aside amid concerns about its shaky finances and Russian mob ties.)

Given what Steve Wynn was hearing from his competitors in Massachusetts, one of Wynn’s biggest concerns was whether his company even had a chance of landing the Greater Boston casino license.  Sinatra says Tocco kept reassuring Wynn officials that the selection process in Massachusetts wasn’t rigged. “He was among the few who believed that it wasn’t,” she says. “He believed that it was straight. I will tell you that I didn’t know.”

Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts

Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts

Says Tocco: “I was absolutely convinced there was going to be a level playing field.  I didn’t say they were going to win it, but I said the fix was not in. It took a lot of convincing periodically.”

The push for the license and then the right to begin construction would turn out to be one of the most complicated, costly, and controversial lobbying campaigns in Massachusetts history, and it’s still not over. Menino seemed determined to block Wynn’s casino ambitions and help Suffolk Downs, but current Mayor Marty Walsh has taken the battle to a new level, suing the Gaming Commission to block Wynn’s license award, suing Wynn to revoke a state environmental permit, and accusing Wynn officials of knowingly dealing with underworld figures in the purchase of land in Everett.

Wynn is both a dream-come-true and a nightmare for a behind-the-scenes fixer like Tocco. A legend in the casino business, Wynn is capable of charming just about anyone when he’s in the mood. His company has a strong balance sheet and a track record of success. He was masterful at belittling Mohegan Sun, his chief rival for the license, ridiculing the company’s proposed “three-star” hotel and suggesting the gaming company was only interested in Massachusetts to protect its casino in Connecticut.

But Wynn can also be his own worst enemy. When the Gaming Commission said it didn’t like Wynn’s design for his hotel, he responded with a snide letter basically telling it to pound sand. Tired of suggestions from Boston officials that his company knew about criminal involvement in the Everett land deal, Wynn brought in a private attorney and threatened to sue Walsh. Neither move was part of the ML Strategies game plan. Each time, cooler heads eventually prevailed, and Wynn backed off.

Wynn Resorts also seems to ride a roller-coaster with state regulators, but the company always seems to land on its feet, perhaps because of the ability of ML Strategies to smooth things over. Wynn negotiated a $6 million deal to buy MBTA land for a preferred entrance to the casino, only to have the deal put on hold because the land was transferred improperly. Wynn won a state environmental certificate for its casino project, but only after three attempts. Perhaps the most embarrassing revelation of all was that Wynn purchased its Everett property from a company in which convicted criminals allegedly held a hidden interest.

Through every up and down, Tocco and ML Strategies kept on pulling strings from behind the scenes and collecting monthly retainers. Initially, those retainers bounced around in the neighborhood of $25,000 a month before hitting a peak of nearly $71,000 a month during the first half of this year. Wynn Resorts is far and away the biggest client of ML Strategies, bringing in about 3 to 4 percent of the firm’s revenues until last year, when the percentage rose to 8 percent and then doubled to 16 percent during the first half of this year.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Still, the hefty lobbying bills submitted by ML Strategies may be a bargain. Looking at just 2009 through 2015, Sterling Suffolk Racecourse spent $400,000 more on lobbying than Wynn, and that figure doesn’t include separate lobbying expenditures by Suffolk Downs’s casino partner Mohegan Sun. Of course, the lobbying expenditures of ML Strategies don’t include what Wynn Resorts pays Mintz Levin in legal fees.  Popeo won’t reveal how ML Strategies has done financially, but he seems satisfied. “It holds its own and serves the total needs of the law firm,” he says.

Note: The chairman of the MassINC board of directors is an attorney at Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo. MassINC is the corporate parent of CommonWealth magazine.