WASHINGTON -- As the Homeland Security Department was starting up, Secretary Tom Ridge twice stayed overnight at the Arizona home of a wealthy friend who ran a lobbying firm that was aggressively expanding its homeland security business.
The Blank Rome firm, whose chairman is former Ridge fund-raiser David Girard-diCarlo, hired two of Ridge's aides to lobby the new department, and some of the firm's clients eventually landed lucrative contracts, according to documents and interviews.
Homeland Security officials said they believe Ridge acted ethically because he paid his own way on the trips in November 2002 and April 2003 and never discussed business with Girard-diCarlo.
Some ethics experts say the ties may have created the appearance of a conflict of interest -- something President Bush has ordered his appointees to avoid.
"This relationship does raise questions about the integrity of the government's process for awarding contracts," said Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University. "It creates the appearance that Mr. Girard-diCarlo and his clients might receive preferential treatment."
"David has never even mentioned any single client by name that's involved in homeland security with the secretary," said Homeland Security spokesman Brian Roehrkasse.
Blank Rome has lobbied Ridge's department on behalf of 29 companies, three nonprofit groups and a trade association for the software industry, according to reports the firm filed with Congress.
In a statement, the lobbying firm called Ridge and Girard-diCarlo "close personal friends for more than a decade." The firm said, "Their wives are close friends, and they often spend time together as families. They talk and get together on a regular basis, as good friends do."
Ridge and Girard-diCarlo worked together in Pennsylvania, raising over $400,000 for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 1999 and 2000. Before that, Girard-diCarlo had helped Ridge raise money as Pennsylvania governor.
Ridge left his job as Pennsylvania governor to serve Bush in coordinating a homeland security strategy inside the White House in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A year later, he was named the first secretary of the new Homeland Security Department.
The day after the department's creation on Nov. 25, 2002, Ridge flew to Arizona with his wife and stayed overnight for two or three days in Girard-diCarlo's gated-community home, officials say. Six days before Ridge's visit, Girard-diCarlo had taken out a $3 million loan on the newly built home.
The month after the trip, the first of two Ridge White House aides left the government and went to work for Girard-diCarlo's firm focusing on homeland security issues.
That aide, Mark Holman, has been "the closest governmental and political adviser to Secretary Tom Ridge for over 18 years," a federal contractor proclaimed in promotional material for a seminar series for which Holman was a featured speaker. Holman, Ridge's chief of staff during his years as Pennsylvania governor, had worked briefly for Girard-diCarlo's firm before Ridge brought him to the White House.
Ridge's office says the secretary and Girard-diCarlo did not discuss Holman's departure during the Arizona visit.
A federal conflict-of-interest law barred Holman from lobbying the White House for a year after his departure. The restriction, however, didn't extend to Ridge's new agency.
New York University law professor Stephen Gillers called it "intolerable" that Ridge's White House aides were free to lobby the Homeland Security Department.
It "mocks the ethics rules. If it's allowed, it reveals a gaping hole in the law," Gillers said.
On his first day in office, Bush issued ethics standards requiring his appointees to "endeavor to avoid any actions creating the appearance that they are violating applicable law or the ethical standards in applicable regulations."
When they got to Blank Rome, Holman and the other former Ridge White House aide, Ashley Davis, started signing up new homeland security clients and lobbying Ridge's department.
Ridge made a second trip to Girard-diCarlo's Arizona home in mid-April 2003, helping to celebrate the lobbyist's wedding anniversary with 50 other couples.
Ridge's spokesman said "there were so many other people around" that Ridge and Girard-diCarlo did not get to spend much time together. "The secretary can't recall whether or not he had any time alone with David," Roehrkasse said.
In addition to the two Arizona trips, Ridge has been to Girard-diCarlo's Washington condominium on social occasions, and the two have run into each other at social events around town, Ridge's office says.
Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, says the Bush administration is sending a message by standing by Ridge's trips.
"When Ridge makes clear that he is not worried about appearances, we should not be surprised when the public concludes that government cannot be trusted," Schooner said.
At the time of Ridge's trips to Arizona, Girard-diCarlo's firm represented Raytheon, which is on a team of companies recently awarded border protection work by Ridge's department worth up to $10 billion over the next decade.
Girard-diCarlo's firm arranged two meetings in 2002 between Ridge's staff and Raytheon executives who outlined the firm's capabilities in border security and other areas, according to Raytheon. Ridge was present for part of the first of the two meetings and Holman in his role as a White House aide to Ridge participated in the second meeting, the company said. Holman later lobbied Ridge's department on behalf of Raytheon, according to Blank Rome's congressional reports.
Since early 2003, Blank Rome has lobbied Ridge's department on behalf of the technology services company BearingPoint. The department awarded a $229 million contract to the company in September.
The contracts for Raytheon and BearingPoint were competitively bid.
Boeing, another Blank Rome client, says it received help from Girard-diCarlo's firm in setting up a meeting early this year with the No. 2 official at Ridge's department, Adm. James Loy.
Boeing is performing over $1 billion worth of work for Ridge's department under a competitively bid contract awarded by the Transportation Department the year before Homeland Security was created.
Raytheon said Blank Rome lobbyists "advise us generally on potential business opportunities and partners." The defense contractor says Blank Rome has not lobbied Ridge's department on specific contracts Raytheon is seeking.
BearingPoint describes Blank Rome's lobbying work at Ridge's agency as "general relationship building and not contract specific."
Boeing says that its discussion with Loy focused on "strategic architecture" regarding airport security. The company says that Blank Rome never lobbied Homeland Security on specific issues or contracts on Boeing's behalf.