In the Documents: Ballard Partners Communications with Labor Department Regarding Investigation into Client

Ballard Partners, a Florida lobbying firm with friends in the Trump administration, attempted to block a federal investigation into one of its clients in 2017, at one point even reaching out to a Labor Department official over personal email.

Since Trump entered the White House, Ballard Partners has significantly expanded its business, in large part thanks to firm president Brian Ballard’s relationship with President Donald Trump. Ballard served as the 2016 Trump campaign’s Florida finance chair, as a Trump-pledged Florida electoral college elector, and later as vice chairman of the president’s inaugural committee.

Prior to 2017, Ballard Partners didn’t report lobbying the federal government on behalf of a single client, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. But in 2018, the firm reported receiving $18.3 million for federal lobbying on behalf of 95 clients including Amazon, for-profit prison operator GEO Group, and Caregiver Services Inc. (CSI). CSI is a Florida-based referral service that connects independently contracted caregivers with people who need assistance: the elderly, people who are sick, and people with disabilities. CSI has since terminated its relationship with the firm, but in 2017 and 2018 paid Ballard $480,000 to lobby the White House, the Office of the Vice President, and the Department of Labor, where Ballard Partners reported lobbying on “Labor Classification Regulation.”

According to records American Oversight obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, a regional office of the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division (WHD) was investigating CSI for potentially misclassifying its workers as independent contractors. That misclassification can have serious repercussions for workers, denying them legal protections such as minimum wage, overtime, family and medical leave, unemployment insurance, and safe workplaces. 

Caregiving is a demanding job with a median wage of just $11.63 per hour, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Obama administration had issued a rule extending Fair Labor Standards Act protections to home-care workers. According to Bloomberg Law, Trump’s Labor Department had continued to operate under that rule, but many had expected the administration to reverse it, especially after Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s June 2017 withdrawal of Obama-era guidance on independent contractors.

According to the documents obtained by American Oversight, WHD had sent to CSI at least three subpoenas in August 2017 for payroll information, worker compensation policies, marketing information and other documents. On Sept. 21, Ballard Partners lobbyist Justin Sayfie wrote to WHD Deputy Administrator Keith Sonderling, then a senior adviser, asking for “a pause” in the Atlanta office’s misclassification investigation. Sayfie claimed that the WHD was conducting its investigation based on the withdrawn Obama-era administrator interpretations, even after CSI representatives had made their case with officials in the Atlanta office

In October, after Sayfie sent Sonderling another subpoena for CSI, Sonderling forwarded the email to another WHD official. “[L]et’s catch up on this tomorrow so I can properly let them know they need to deal with the region/[regional solicitor of labor],” Sonderling said. 

But in January 2018, Ballard Partners and CSI were still reaching out to national, not regional, officials, asking to meet “regarding a big picture policy issue.” After this meeting, CSI CEO Al Soderquist thanked Sonderling for giving him “a clearer understanding of where things stand.”

On Feb. 16, 2018, another Ballard lobbyist, partner Dan McFaul, sent an email to Sonderling’s personal account. McFaul, who had served on Trump’s transition team, said that the Miami WHD had “redoubled efforts to have a final conference with CSI on the Independent contractor issue.” He forwarded Sonderling an email from the Miami office that asked for a final conference meeting in March 2018, and told Sonderling he was “anxious for your direction.” Sonderling immediately forwarded the email to his work account and to several of his colleagues. “Happy valentines day,” joked one of Sonderling’s colleagues

Another colleague emailed, “Yikes. Well you certainly did the right thing by forwarding the message into your government email. You should also tell him to only contact you about DOL business on your DOL email.” 

Ballard Partners’ growing body of work is wide-ranging, and American Oversight is investigating the lobbying shop’s influence across the federal government. The Department of Homeland Security has said that it has no records of communications with the firm, despite the fact that Ballard Partners had disclosed that it lobbied the department in 2018. If Ballard Partners is reaching out to officials on their private email, and those employees are not forwarding those contacts to their work email, that could explain the lack of records.

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