"It's highly unusual for a 2-year-old firm to bring in a million," said Gary Ruskin, director of Ralph Nader's Congressional Accountability Project. "A lot of lobbyists are happy just to get one or two clients to survive."
Clients past and present say they value Eppard's longstanding ties with Shuster, other committee members and their aides. She served as Shuster's chief of staff for 22 years before starting her firm in late 1994.
Lobbying a former boss is legal following a one-year moratorium that already has expired for Eppard. But critics say her close personal and professional ties with Shuster create at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"It's often said what's worst in Washington is what's legal," Ruskin said. "It's a perfect example of how corporate interests are able to pay very large amounts of money to a lobbyist with ties to the chairman."
Eppard remains assistant treasurer for Shuster's campaign, helping him raise more than $1 million since 1995, much of it from the transportation industry. Eppard and Shuster have defended the arrangement.
Eppard declined to comment on her business, saying "I just don't want to talk." Shuster also said he had no comment.
Ann Eppard Associates raked in $1.1 million from 17 clients in 1996, more than double the $450,000 earned in its first year. Eppard also has signed up six new clients this year, when Shuster's committee plans a top-to-bottom overhaul of federal transportation programs.
According to Legal Times, a newspaper that covers lawyers and lobbyists, Eppard's firm ranked 74th in revenues last year, out of some 3,800 lobbying firms and individuals registered with the Senate.
"When you are bringing forward projects of this magnitude, you want the best," said Sylvia Farina, an aide to Dade County (Fla.) Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla. "We needed strength, people who were knowledgeable and who had the connections, not just passing ones."
Dade County, which includes Miami, wants authorization for nearly $500 million for rail and bus improvements to ease traffic and encourage growth. The county hired Eppard as lead lobbyist in 1995 at the recommendation of associates in Washington and Florida, Farina said.
Eppard's clients have wound up getting much of what they had sought in the past two years, although it is not possible to conclude whether the provisions came about solely because of her efforts.
Those clients included:
- Federal Express, which got a law that critics say would hinder employees' ability to form unions. A contentious debate on the measure, which the company insists only maintains the status quo, held up congressional adjournment for days at the end of last year's session.
- The Outdoor Advertising Association of America, which got restoration of state control over regulating billboards in commercial and industrial areas. The industry is bracing for another fight over billboards this spring.
- The International Council of Cruise Lines, which got protections for cruise ship owners and operators from some civil lawsuits.
- The Pennsylvania Petroleum Association, which got a pilot program that would let heating oil delivery drivers work longer during the winter, despite safety rules that limit their hours.
Other clients are counting on the pattern to continue.
"She has a strong reputation in the transportation arena," said Alan Johnson, transportation chairman for the Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce in southern Texas. "That's exactly what we needed. We looked from the standpoint of who can we get the most bang out of for our buck."
Business leaders have been working for several years to upgrade a pair of highways to interstate standards, and Eppard was hired in December to push for the project's inclusion in this year's transportation bill.
Eppard's firm is relatively small, with only four registered lobbyists besides her, but three of them also are former House aides. The firm also once employed Tim Hugo, now Shuster's chief of staff.
The ties between Shuster and Eppard came into question following disclosure last year that Shuster and his family have stayed overnight many times at Eppard's townhouse outside Washington. Federal officials reportedly are investigating the two.
Eppard has said she complied with all federal laws, including a prohibition against directly lobbying her former boss for one year after leaving his office.
Eppard has said in the past that she dropped clients rather than risk a conflict of interest with Shuster.