Lobbying shake-up signals Boeing may be losing once-unmatched D.C. clout

by Emily Birnbaum at seattletimes.com

Boeing, which builds planes for presidents and holds billions in government contracts, is at risk of losing its unmatched clout in Washington.

On Wednesday, the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations is planning a hearing on what it calls a “broken safety culture” at the maker of Air Force One, Super Hornet fighter jets and commercial airplanes millions of people fly on every year. Boeing has been facing allegations of shortcuts and short-sightedness after a series of safety problems, including a Jan. 5 incident where a door plug was sucked off an Alaska Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 mid-flight. 

The increased scrutiny is expected to test a Boeing lobbying operation that has seen a series of changes. The company has severed its connection with one of K Street’s most powerful firms, and some veteran lobbying staffers have left to join competitors. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has said she won’t accept campaign donations from Boeing executives.

In February, Boeing cut ties with Cornerstone Government Affairs, which helped it navigate the aftermath of two 737 MAX crashes in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people. Ziad “Z” Ojakli, Boeing’s chief in-house lobbyist, ended the relationship because Cornerstone had taken on a client, Sierra Space Corp., that had hired Ojakli’s predecessor at Boeing, Tim Keating, according to people familiar with the matter.

Cornerstone didn’t respond to requests for comment. Boeing said the termination was amicable. 

CEO Dave Calhoun ousted Keating, who had been at Boeing for more than 14 years, in 2021 and tapped Ojakli, a former Ford lobbyist, as his successor. The transition is said to have been bumpy: Ojakli and many staffers he hired are still coming up to speed on the aerospace business, according to people familiar with the matter, and so far haven’t forged ties with many lawmakers who’d advocated for Boeing in the past.

“Boeing has made significant changes across our leadership group since 2019, and our government operations team is no exception,” said company spokesperson Connor Greenwood. “We’ve added new leaders with significant transportation and safety experience to the organization, and they are communicating transparently with government officials and policymakers every day.”

Boeing was long celebrated as an American industrial icon, winning a range of allies in Washington. Yet its recent controversies could pose risks to its defense contracts, slow its commercial operations and lead to more stringent government oversight, according to lawmakers, congressional staffers and former and current company lobbyists.

The company spent $14.4 million on lobbying in 2023 and has more than 100 lobbyists and 17 government-affairs firms on its payroll. Its political action committee is currently the second-largest corporate PAC in the U.S. based on receipts, according to Federal Election Commission data. 

“They’ve had a huge influence in DC for a long, long time,” said Ed Pierson, a former Boeing engineer who runs an aviation-safety foundation and is scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing. “The whole world is questioning what they can trust from Boeing. Our legislators are finally waking up. Boeing’s protective shield has been damaged.”