Street Talk: Lobbyist's Doctor Pals Will See You Now, Senator
By Kate Ackley
Roll Call Staff
March 6, 2011
They call him Dr. Watters, even though he's not a doctor.
He's a lobbyist for technology and financial interests, but separate from his day job, Robb Watters has gained a reputation as something of a healer — a modern-day medicine man — among ailing Hill staffers, Members and fellow lobbyists.
He is a volunteer board member of the George Washington University Medical Faculty Associates and stays on call 24/7 to make doctor recommendations and sometimes line up hard-to-get medical appointments for friends and acquaintances on the Hill and off.
"Finding good health care is a daunting task," said Watters, who is managing partner of the Madison Group. "If anyone calls me, if you're in pain, it doesn't matter what time it is, I feel it's my obligation to help them."
There are a lot of ways to win friends and influence people on Capitol Hill. Most lobbyists go the route of raising money for Members or hosting swanky events to honor them. Watters, of course, has done that, too.
But his physician connections and medical savvy have helped win Watters enormous goodwill on the Hill and downtown in a way that perhaps no other K Streeter can. Still, Watters points out, there is a downside to intervening in people's medical care. When they end up dissatisfied, they are happy to give "Dr. Watters" an earful.
Not to mention all the unfortunate symptoms and heartbreaking disease stories he becomes privy to.
But mostly, Watters has a trail of happy customers who credit the lobbyist with everything from clearing up their skin to curing their seasonal allergies to saving their lives. The medical faculty associates, likewise, give him glowing reviews for helping them grow the nonprofit practice.
"I have a long list of health problems of a guy in his late 40s," said one Democratic Senate aide, who has followed Watters' physician recommendations. "I was talking about an ailment one day, and he hears me talking and says, 'You should go see so-and-so.' I was like, 'What's your affiliation with GW?' It strikes me as a vocation."
Watters recommended a dermatologist. "She was fantastic," the aide said. He saw other doctors in the practice based on Watters' suggestions. "Frankly, I started calling him Dr. Watters. Not only is he a concierge for GW medical associates, in a previous life he must have been a physician."
This Senate aide originally met Watters through the aide's boss, a Senator. "He occasionally brings some client work in," the aide said. "It's very limited." As for whether the aide feels a debt to Watters: "There's nothing attached."
A GOP Senate staffer, too, found what he calls "an incredible team of doctors" through Watters.
"It was absolutely terrific to get linked in," the staffer said.
When the staffer's Midwestern-based father experienced a serious medical problem, he called on Watters to see if he could help him get to GW where the father ultimately had successful surgery.
"I truly believe they saved his life," the staffer said. "He got the most amazing care — all thanks to Robb because you don't just roll into a place and say, 'I'm here.' He directly contacted the doctors."
Watters said he keeps his lobbying practice and his medical volunteer work separate. And though he is a constant advocate for GW's doctors and their pro bono outreach to the community, Watters does not lobby for GW.
Ethics and lobbying expert William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper, said Members and staff must be mindful not to accept benefits from lobbyists that could constitute an impermissible gift, but they are allowed normal social interactions like discussing ailments and seeking doctor recommendations from friends and acquaintances. But they still "can't grant a favor to someone" just because they received good advice, Minor said.
When it comes to his K Street contacts, Watters doesn't have to worry about overstepping any gift restrictions.
Frank Duggan, who is president of Victims of Pan Am Flight 103, credits Watters with helping him and his wife not only receive top-notch medical care but even get an upgraded room at GW hospital "where they must put the Saudi royal princes."
Duggan knows Watters through a mutual friend. When Duggan's doctor scheduled him for heart bypass surgery, the patient called Watters on a Saturday evening.
"He said, 'I'll have Cheney's doctor down there tomorrow,'" Duggan recalled, referencing former Vice President Dick Cheney, a cardiac patient at GW. "I said, 'Tomorrow's Sunday.' Lo and behold, in comes this doctor, who said, 'You don't need a bypass; a stent will take care of it.'"
When Duggan's wife needed cancer surgery, she was placed in a room adjacent to a guarded prisoner, so Duggan called Watters to see if they could move away from that section.
"I don't know how he does it, but he works his magic. I've never seen anybody work the system like this," said Duggan of the palatial room they scored. "He can just make things happen. My wife and I are in great shape, largely because of Robb Watters."
Members of the Medical Faculty Associates credit Watters with helping them to run the business, so they can focus on their patients.
John Larsen, chairman of the obstetrics and gynecology department, called Watters "a force of nature" in an interview in between patients last week.
"You've heard the old quote that dealing with doctors is like herding cats," Larsen said. "Robb is good with the business stuff, and otherwise the cats become scraggly looking critters."
Steve Badger, CEO of the Medical Faculty Associates, said Watters helped the group negotiate the purchase of a building at 2300 M St. NW that was previously owned by the Carlyle Group. "Robb has connections with everyone," said Badger, who met Watters at a Larry King cardiac benefit dinner more than seven years ago and was impressed with his business expertise.
"He's been a valuable board member, and not just because of all the referrals from the political folks on the Hill," Badger quipped.
"We've been profitable every year that Robb has been on the board," Badger said.
While Watters does not lobby for the medical faculty associates, his Hill contacts can come in handy. "He has introduced me to people who are making decisions," Badger said, noting that Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) spent a half-day touring the facility.
"He speaks so highly of the doctors, and he believes in them," the Democratic Senate aide said. "When they find out that I'm working on the Hill, they say, 'Did Robb recommend you?' They know he's out there, their ambassador."