As lobbyist, Kuster walked a fine line
Ann Kuster Purchase photo reprints at PhotoExtra »
On April 8, 1998, several people had already testified before the state Senate Judiciary Committee about the dangers of certain “date rape” drugs when Jane #1 described what happened to her on a trip to Taco Bell with some guys she knew.
“I wasn’t just date raped,” she said. “I was gang raped, after being slipped roofies.”
At times struggling to finish her sentences, Jane #1 explained to eight senators and a packed room that she had suffered seizures and almost died because of the assault.
Because of pending legal cases, the woman didn’t identify herself for the record, according to a transcript of her testimony that morning.
So when her sister spoke right after her, she was identified in the transcript as “Jane #2.”
Jane #2 said the police told her it would be hard to build a case against the people who’d assaulted her sister because the drug that had been slipped to her – Rohypnol – had wiped her memory clean.
“They say, ‘Well your chances of ever catching the person who did (it) is slim to none because, if she does get her memory back, it’s not going to be a valid memory,’ ” Jane #2 said.
So she and her sister, echoed by more than 200 local college students who’d signed a petition, women’s advocates, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and others, wanted the state to change the way Rohypnol was distributed.
They wanted the drug, whose generic name is flunitrazepam but is known in popular culture as “roofies,” to be reclassified.
In New Hampshire at the time, Rohypnol was in “Schedule IV,” a group of drugs such as Valium and Xanax, which had a “low potential for abuse” when compared with other drugs and a “currently accepted medical use” in the U.S.
Advocates for House Bill 1553 said Rohypnol should be in “Schedule I,” a group of drugs that include heroin and LSD. Such drugs are addictive, have “no currently accepted medical use” and a “high potential for abuse.”
This move, advocates felt, would help combat so-called date rapes.
“(S)cheduling it, to the point where you can at least try to control it more, will help,” Jane #2 said. “And if it helps one kid, that’s enough because it’s so devastating.”
A short while later, a lobbyist registered to represent the multibillion-dollar, multinational corporation headquartered in Switzerland that makes Rohypnol, began her testimony.
“My name is Ann McLane Kuster, I’m from Rath, Young & Pignatelli. To clarify, we don’t support the bill as drafted. But we would like to propose an amendment. I want to start by saying that this has been the most compelling testimony I think I’ve probably ever heard in the years that I’ve been over here.”
In her roughly 20 years as an attorney and lobbyist with the Concord firm Rath, Young & Pignatelli, Kuster represented dozens of businesses, nonprofit organizations and professional associations.
Her clients have included Dartmouth College, Dartmouth Medical School, Bedford Ambulatory Surgical Center, Fidelity Investments and the New Hampshire College and University Council.
From 1989 to 2009, Kuster earned more than $1.3 million in lobbying fees, according to reports she filed with the state, including $145,000 from pharmaceutical companies and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.
A Hopkinton Democrat, Kuster is again in a tight race for the 2nd District seat against Charlie Bass, a Peterborough Republican who beat her by about 3,500 votes in 2010.
Two years ago, Kuster’s lobbying came under attack by her Democratic primary rival, Katrina Swett. Kuster was also targeted in mailings that news reports at the time said were from the state GOP. Those mailings tried to claim, falsely, that Kuster “wanted to make sure we didn’t give ‘roofies’ a bad name,” and that she “put profits before New Hampshire values.” Such attacks are “scurrilous,” her campaign said.
But this year, as in 2010, Kuster is running on some of her lobbying triumphs.
An ad that aired in late August featured a nurse named Bev Bolduc, who praised Kuster’s work pushing through a program that at its peak helped 17,000 people get access to long-term medication that they otherwise might not have been able to afford.
“Annie Kuster worked with both Republicans and Democrats, and together they created the Medication Bridge Program,” Bolduc says. “She worked across party lines to make that happen. And it seems like we could use more of that attitude in Washington, and more people like Annie Kuster.”
The Kuster campaign also notes that Kuster was instrumental in the creation of the UNIQUE College Investment Plan, which allows families to save for college in tax-deferred investment accounts.
For the past 25 years, Kuster focused on education and health care. If elected, she’d like to sit on committees that deal with those issues.
But she dealt with a lot more than college savings plans and Medication Bridge.
For example, in 1995, Kuster fought legislation that would have required pharmaceutical manufacturers to sell drugs at the same price to all purchasers. Introduced by a Republican, it was intended to eliminate disparities in pricing when drugs were purchased by hospital pharmacies or HMOs, which landed competitive deals with manufacturers, and independent pharmacies, which paid a significantly higher price.
Kuster testified that “health care reform should rely upon market forces to insure access to medicine, contain cost, preserve quality of care and stimulate innovation.”
That bill died in committee but another that she worked on in 1998, which prohibited pharmacies from selling patients’ medical information to drug manufacturers, passed.
A proud advocate of women’s issues, Kuster has earned the endorsement of feminist groups including NARAL Pro-Choice America, EMILY’s List and the National Organization for Women.
But the work of a lobbyist, which requires diplomacy and an intricate understanding of the law and law-making, has also required Kuster to influence legislation that could seem at odds with her advocacy credentials.
Kuster declined interview requests from the Monitor for this story. Her campaign said it would consider responding to specific questions but did not answer the ones that were sent.
However, the Kuster campaign was quick to point out that Bass earned about $600,000 when he was working for firms that lobbied – one run by two of his former staffers – after he lost re-election in 2006. Bass has not been a registered lobbyist.
Kuster’s boss at Rath, Young & Pignatelli, Tom Rath, is a Republican and declined to speak specifically about Kuster’s career at his firm. He did, however, speak in general terms about what it takes to be an effective lobbyist and what he tells those who work for him.
“Lobbyists are a significant purveyor of information and facts on any particular issue,” he said.
You need to like people and be able to understand opposing points of view, Rath said.
If you’re effective, he said, you don’t ask people to do things you know they can’t do, and you don’t make promises you can’t keep.
More than anything, though, Rath “preaches” to his staff their relationships are more important than any one bill. “Representatives and senators quickly discern which lobbyists they can trust,” Rath said.
“Lobbyists who try to be fast and loose, and not tell representatives the truth and don’t level with them, don’t last in the business.”
‘Resource for lawmakers’
In a 1999 interview at a bench in the corridor outside Representatives Hall at the State House, Kuster said she saw herself as a “resource for lawmakers.”
“Here in the State House they don’t have the staff and resources to do all the research they need to do, and that’s where I can help,” she said.
And that was how she presented herself to lawmakers mulling the Rohypnol bills in April 1998.
“I’m suggesting that this committee could actually add teeth to this legislation and give law enforcement the tools that they need to prosecute these cases in a way that would be effective,” she said during her testimony.
Most of the senators on the Judiciary Committee at that hearing couldn’t be reached, couldn’t remember that day or declined to comment.
But Burt Cohen, a Democrat from New Castle who sat on the committee, said Kuster was “the key player in it in making sure that something really good passed that helped protect New Hampshire.”
Before she got into the nuts and bolts of the recommendations she’d make to Cohen and the committee members, Kuster praised the women who’d testified ahead of her.
“I wanted to commend the young people for coming forward, and I’m sure those stories were difficult and I know it can be intimidating coming in this audience.”
She expressed sympathy for those who’d been raped and shared some of her experiences at Dartmouth College, where she earned her undergraduate degree in 1978.
“I went to a college that had been all male for 200 years, and I was in the third class of women there,” Kuster said. “Alcohol was the date rape of choice at that point, and although I was fortunate not to have the experience myself, I had roommates and others that did.”
Kuster pointed out that the stories the young women told in April 1998 would have been so taboo in the past that they might not have shared them with their own families, forget legislators.
“I’m pleased to see the support that these girls are getting because at that time, it was clearly a blame-the-victim frame of mind in our society,” Kuster said.
And then she told lawmakers what was wrong with the bill.
The problems largely involved pharmaceutical technicalities and the intersection of state and federal regulations.
First off, unlike heroin and certain types of cocaine, Rohypnol had a legitimate medical use, Kuster and others from her firm and Hoffman-LaRoche explained.
Therefore, to put Rohypnol in Schedule I would be medically and scientifically unsound, Kuster said.
“(T)his pill is used legally in 80 different countries by an estimated 1 million patients a day as an insomnia medication,” Kuster said. There could be a “potential negative effect in terms of the stigmatization of this drug on that legal market.”
Then and now, the federal government didn’t allow the use of Rohypnol. But because it had a legitimate medical purpose, federal regulators put the drug in Schedule IV, not Schedule I, Kuster and others, including a representative from the state Board of Pharmacy, explained.
Generally speaking, New Hampshire officials assign drugs to the same schedules the federal authorities do. If New Hampshire deviated from that, Kuster said, there could be serious unintended legal consequences.
“If New Hampshire chooses by legislation to go the route of changing the schedule of one particular drug this year . . . I think you’re going to have a serious concern about . . . not only interstate commerce, but interstate drug trafficking,” she said.
From a legal point of view, rescheduling the drug from a Schedule IV to a Schedule I wouldn’t actually affect someone’s punishment if convicted of possession, she said.
To really get at the problem of sexual assault, Kuster and others said, you need to change the existing laws.
Her suggestions included:
∎ Increasing the penalties of an already existing law prohibiting the illegal possession of any controlled substance.
∎ Amending existing New Hampshire sexual assault laws to better punish those of assaulting someone using a drug such as Rohypnol.
∎ Enhancing penalties for those who illegally use a controlled substance.
In the end, then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen signed HB 1553 into law, and since then New Hampshire authorities consider Rohypnol a Schedule I drug even though the federal government considers it a Schedule IV.
Tom Rath likens the work of a lobbyist to “mind-numbing sort of surgery on legislation.” Their success is measured in “small victories,” he said.
“Most of lobbying is an incremental process,” he said. “It is changing the wording base, putting some explanation where there was none.”
In that way, Kuster supporters could point to her work on HB 1553 as a victory. Certainly her firm’s effort to keep the drug in Schedule IV and not Schedule I was unsuccessful, but some of their other suggestions were heeded.
The way the law reads now, if the medical use of Rohypnol is ever permitted, the stiffened punishments for possession with the intent to distribute would be the same as those outlined in a memo Kuster submitted.
Kuster’s campaign and supporters point to her work on this bill as a sign of her skill as an advocate for New Hampshire residents.
“Annie supported tougher criminal penalties for ‘date rape drugs’ and she helped state legislators successfully write tougher penalties into law in 1998,” her campaign manager, Garrick Delzell, said in a statement to the Monitor. Her supporters have also praised her years of lobbying.
“Annie is an amazing advocate in so many ways,” said Lucy Hodder, her friend and colleague at Rath, Young & Pignatelli. “Her many years of experience, enthusiasm, grit and legal skills make her unique at what she does.”
In an interview two years ago, Kuster said her time lobbying honed her skills and prepared her to be a congresswoman.
“I think I have excellent experience in terms of how to bring people together to get things done,” Kuster said then, echoing what she says in ads and on the stump.
“In New Hampshire, it’s often in a partnership with the nonprofit community, the business community and the state legislators that we solve issues that can help people in their real lives.”