In late March, real estate investment firm Ashford Inc. was on the verge of financial ruin. But it had an ace in the hole: a pair of D.C. lobbying firms stacked with Trump fundraisers and White House alumni.
The Dallas-based Ashford does extensive business in the hotel industry through a pair of real estate investment trusts. Its chairman, Monty Bennett, penned an open letter on March 22 detailing just how devastating the virus had been for his company.
“My industry and our businesses are completely crushed,” he wrote “This pandemic’s economic impact on the hotel industry is worse than all of the previous calamities combined.”
Bennett himself is a huge Trump donor. He’s given over $200,000 to the Trump campaign, the Republican National Committee, and a joint fundraising committee supporting both of them since last year, according to Federal Election Commission records. He chipped in even more in support of Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Twelve days before Bennett wrote that open letter, Ashford had beefed up its political muscle even more. It hired its first-ever Washington lobbying firm, Miller Strategies. That firm is run by Jeff Miller, who was a finance vice-chair of President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee. He has raised more than $2.8 million for the RNC and a Trump joint fundraising committee so far this cycle, including $2.5 million in the first quarter of 2020 alone, according to FEC filings. Miller’s firm also employs Jonathan Hiller, the former director of legislative affairs for Vice President Mike Pence, and Ashley Gunn, Trump’s former director of cabinet affairs.
Miller’s lobbying registration form said it would be working on “issues as they relate to the hotel industry” on Ashford’s behalf. He didn’t respond to inquiries about whether he helped the company secure PPP aid.
Miller’s work on Ashford’s behalf shows how some large companies have attempted to leverage political connections into a greater share of the massive amounts of federal money being doled out to mitigate the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. It also shows how some large chains have attempted to maximize their assistance from the PPP program by treating each of their franchises as a separate business, enabling awards to multiple firms owned by the same parent company.
On the same day that Ashford hired Miller, it inked a separate lobbying deal with another Trump-connected firm. Bailey Strategic Advisors is run by Roy Bailey, a Trump fundraiser who served as finance chair of pro-Trump super PAC America First Action and on the board of an affiliated dark money group, America First Policies.
Bailey’s firm was more specific about what it would be doing on Ashford’s behalf, saying in lobbying registration forms that it would work on “issues related to COVID-19 relief for the hotel industry.”
News of the $53 million in PPP funds that Ashford eventually received—more than any other company—has fueled criticism this week of the large amounts of money from the program steered to large firms, ostensibly at the expense of smaller ones. The PPP program is set to get another $300 billion injection after its initial funds were depleted in a matter of days.
“As small businesses are struggling across the country, it’s still mega-donors first for Donald Trump and his administration,” said Jeb Fain, a spokesman for the Democratic super PAC American Bridge, in a statement on Ashford’s work in securing PPP funds. “Hardworking Americans deserve better than a president more focused on special favors than managing a major crisis.”
Bennett appears to have anticipated criticism of the program’s assistance to large companies like his. In his open letter last month, he explicitly scorned the apparent desire by some in Congress to prioritize smaller companies.
“Some politicians are too concerned whether proposed government programs help small businesses rather than ‘big business,’ or individuals instead of ‘corporations,’” Bennett complained. “Is it preferable for a large business like Marriott to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers so we can say we helped only small businesses? Is it smart to let an industry icon like Hilton go bankrupt as long as we help a corner hotel?”
Whether large firms are more or less deserving, they undoubtedly have more money to burn on Washington lobbyists who can help them secure a larger piece of coronavirus relief packages that are sure to continue as the economic fallout persists. That inevitably means more business for K Street firms with the ability to influence high-level administration decision-making.
But large companies aren’t the only ones seeking coronavirus-related help from Washington’s influence industry. Days before it signed Ashford, Miller Strategies also inked a deal with a company called Nuclein, which is seeking Food and Drug Administration approval for its hand-held COVID-19 test kit.
Other Trump-connected firms have seen similar bumps in business related to the coronavirus. Ballard Partners, a firm run by Trump fundraiser Brian Ballard, recently helped get laundry services added to the Department of Homeland Security’s list of essential businesses on behalf of a commercial laundry machine manufacturer.