Collier County deputy manager fired; double-dipping as secret lobbyist, documents reveal

Rachel Heimann Mercader
Naples Daily News

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comments from Sean Callahan's current employer, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck. A spokesperson for Brownstein responded to the Naples Daily News after this article was published. 

A Collier County deputy manager failed to disclose he has been working as a lobbyist, leading to his firing, documents reveal.

Sean Callahan, who served as acting county manager while County Manager Mark Isackson recovered from COVID-19, has been employed by the lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck in Washington, D.C., for the past 10 months.

Failing to disclose secondary employment is a violation of the county's ethics and anti-fraud policy and outside employment policy. 

Sean Callahan

At least three county commissioners support Isackson's decision to fire Callahan, calling the extra work "distasteful" and lacking ethics. The lobbying work included a business that has ties to Bonita Springs and Cape Coral.

A termination letter dated Jan. 20 shows that Callahan was fired after it came to Isackson's attention that Callahan never informed the county that he was working a second job, before or after he became deputy manager last year. 

Previous coverage:Collier County manager returns to work after battle with COVID-19, encourages vaccinations

The termination became effective Jan. 23. The Naples Daily News received a copy of the letter after filing a public records request. The county provided the termination letter within a few hours.

"Your failure to share this vital information with me at the time you were considered for appointment to the Deputy manager position, or at any time thereafter, is a serious breach of practices that cannot be tolerated," Isackson wrote. "As a result, I no longer have confidence in your ability to serve in this role …."

County government public information officer Bill Fassold wrote in an email Thursday that Isackson "will have no further comment on the Callahan termination letter provided by HR. It's a personnel issue and the letter is how it's being addressed."

Callahan did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails. 

Callahan's firing comes two weeks after Isackson announced in an email to all 3,500 county employees his plan to retire in July. 

Late last year, Isackson took a two-month absence as he battled COVID-19, returning in November. Callahan served as acting county manager in his absence.

Mark Isackson was selected in March to be the next Collier County manager.

Related:Collier County manager announces retirement after his battle with COVID-19

In his email to staff this month, Isackson said his ongoing struggle with post-COVID conditions became the deciding factor for him to retire.

Callahan's resume

In March, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck announced in a news release the hiring of Callahan as a senior policy adviser with the firm's federal government relations team in Washington, D.C. The release states that he previously "served at the Collier County Board of County Commissioners."

Brownstein is a lobbying and law firm headquartered in Denver with 600 attorneys, policy consultants, and other staff in 13 offices across the western U.S. and in Washington, D.C. The firm posted $15.96 million for its fourth-quarter federal lobbying revenue for 2021, an industry record, according to the Denver Post. 

"We were unaware that Sean Callahan was employed outside of our firm. We’re conducting a thorough investigation," a Brownstein spokesperson told the Naples Daily News. 

Callahan joined the county government staff in 2017 serving as the executive director of corporate business operations and then the division director of operations support for the county.

Before relocating his family to Collier County, he also spent several years on Capitol Hill working in various roles in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He started on Capitol Hill as a senior policy adviser and military legislative assistant to Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, a Hawaii Democrat, and then moved on to become the deputy chief of staff and legislative director to Rep. Mark Takai, also a Hawaii Democrat and a member of the Armed Services and Small Business committees.

Related:Collier County manager temporarily absent from county, acting county manager appointed

In the latter role, Callahan led the office’s appropriations program and assisted state and local agencies in obtaining federal funding, developing best practices that he now leverages for clients.

He also served as deputy chief of staff to Sen. Mazie Hirono, a Democrat representing Hawaii, a member of the Armed Services, Select Intelligence, Veterans Affairs, Small Business, and Energy and Natural Resources committees. His main responsibility was coordinating national security and foreign affairs efforts, according to his firm bio. 

Records show that in 2008 and in 2014, while working for Hanabusa, Callahan served as an in-house lobbyist for American Maritime Congress, a research and educational organization that focuses on issues that confront the maritime industry.

Lobbyist work

Lobbying firms and lobbyists are required to file paperwork identifying themselves, their clients, and the policy issues they are working on, under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. The registrations are filed with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives. 

The forms list the individual people doing the lobbying. If one of those lobbyists used to be a member of Congress, works as a congressional staffer, or has had one of a small set of positions in the executive branch in the past 20 years, the lobbyist is required to disclose that as well. 

In 2021, Callahan was hired as a lobbyist for 19 clients, public records show.

According to one disclosure, last year Callahan was hired as a lobbyist by the city of Anchorage for issues impacting municipalities. The agencies lobbied were the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, records show. Callahan, with two other lobbyists, was paid $​50,000 between October and December.

Screenshot of search results displaying a portion of Sean Callahan's registrations and quarterly activity forms filed with the Secretary of the Senate.

In another example, from July 2021 to Jan. 19, Callahan and two other lobbyists were paid approximately $60,000 by  Columbia Care LLC for issues relating to cannabis research, including the solicitation of applications to manufacture cannabis for research purposes, according to a disclosure. 

Columbia Care, based in New York, has 14 dispensaries in Florida, including Bonita Springs and Cape Coral.  The company reported its total lobbying expenditures to be $140,000 in 2021.

In November, the Pakistani Embassy entered into a contract with Brownstein worth $100,000 to represent its interests in Washington in the midst of continued rising tensions over the humanitarian fallout of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to a contract made public by the Department of Justice. Callahan is part of the team of lobbyists, which includes former Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich, records show. 

Commissioner reactions

Three Collier County commissioners told the Naples Daily News that they were disappointed when informed of the reason behind Callahan's sudden termination this week. 

Commissioner Penny Taylor said that a silver lining was that the county was able to catch the unethical behavior, learn from it, and improve.

"What we did is we caught it. And we took the appropriate action. It's a very, very disappointing chapter in Collier County's history because this man who had an undisclosed other employer was made acting county manager while our county manager was fighting for his life with COVID," she said.

"It's so distasteful to me, just shows to me a profound lack of ethics and professionalism," she said. "I don't have words for it."

Collier County Commissioner and Chairwoman Penny Taylor reads a proclamation in honor of former County Manager Leo E. Ochs, Jr.  Ochs was appointed as county manager on Sept. 29, 2009, after serving previously as assistant and deputy county manager since 2001. County Manager Mark Isackson assumed control of operations on May 3, 2021.

She added that in her seven years with Collier County government she is unaware that a similar situation has ever happened before.

"I am going to work really hard to make sure that it never happens again," she added.

Commissioner William McDaniel said that the revelation about Callahan's other job was an indication of a deeper problem within the county government. He believes it is a sign that the county needs to work on its vetting system. 

"We need a review of the systems on the appointees and background checks and how we go through that process," he said. "If in fact, what's been alleged, that he did not disclose his secondary employment in advance of his appointment to deputy manager, someone missed that somewhere."

Commissioner Rick LoCastro expressed appreciation for Isackson's ability to investigate and deal with Callahan. 

"Mark Isackson certainly has done a lot in a short time to make our county team better. He was the right selection for county manager, and although losing him was unexpected, I fully appreciate his reasoning to retire due to his recent bout with COVID-19 and his family," LoCastro said. "I am however very impressed with Isackson's ability to uncover any issues he discovers and deal with them immediately and appropriately just as he did in this case."

Taylor said that in the past year, government staff began to notice Callahan becoming increasingly absent and "missing a significant amount of time" of work, especially around the time he was made acting county manager. 

"We all attributed to just that he needed to clear his head because the workload is a lot and it was unexpected. And so, we all got together," she said. "It's what you do when you have a crisis, and it is a crisis when your county manager is fighting for his life with COVID. We all took care of our work. We all did our work except for Sean...

"Once a lobbyist, always a lobbyist."

Paid lobbyist

Here is a list of Sean Callahan's lobbying clients and interests he was paid to lobby for allegedly while serving as acting manager for Collier County, including a business with ties to Bonita Springs and Cape Coral:

  • Apollo Global Management, a New York-based global alternative investment management firm for issues related to postsecondary education.

  • Alibaba Group, a Chinese multinational technology company for issues related to intellectual property (H.R. 3429: SHOP SAFE Act of 2021 S.936). 

  • BAE Systems, a London-based multinational arms, security, and aerospace company for issues related to Department of Defense appropriations and policy.

  • Cengage, a Boston-based educational content, technology, and services company for the higher education, K-12, professional, and library markets for issues related to higher education and workforce development (H.R.3684 - Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act). 

  • City of Colorado Springs, Colorado, for general municipal interests for the city and the location of Space Command headquarters. 

  • Clearprisim, a Texas-based digital consulting firm for issues related to critical supply chains. 

  • Columbia Care, a New-York based cannabis company for issues relating to cannabis research, including the Drug Enforcement Administration's solicitation of applications to manufacture cannabis for research purposes.

  • Infinera, a California-based telecommunications network company for issues related to semiconductor manufacturing Issues related to competition (S.2160 US Innovation and Competitiveness Act).

  • Intrepid Potash, a Denver-based fertilizer manufacturer for issues related to mining and public lands. 

  • Jacobs Engineering Group Inc., a Texas-based international technical professional services firm for issues related to U.S. infrastructure, Superfund, flood control, MilCON-VA, and LPTA (H.R.5376 - Build Back Better Act H.R.3684 - Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act).

  • Kioxia Corp., a Chinese global supplier of flash memory and solid-state drives for semiconductor and storage-related trade issues and proceedings.

  • KPS Global, a Texas-based manufacturer of insulated panel systems for issues related to supply chain disruptions.

  • Medivant Healthcare, a Texas-based pharmaceutical manufacturing company for issues related to pharmaceutical manufacturing and supply.

  • Municipality of Anchorage, Alaska, for issues related to infrastructure development.

  • Oracle Corp, a Texas-based technology company for issues relating to procurement, defense, information systems, and information security. Issues relating to IT Modernization and acquisition. (H.R.3849 - ACCESS Act of 2021).

  • Powerlight Technologies, a Washington-based engineering firm for issues related to power transmission via lasers (H.R.4350 - National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022).

  • Precision Castparts, an Oregon-based industrial goods and metal fabrication company for National Defense Authorization Act and issues relating to procurement reform and trade of specialty metals.

  • Skydio, a California-based drone manufacturer for issues related to U.S. drone manufacturing, autonomy, and security.

  • Ur-Energy USA, a Colorado-based uranium mining, recovery and processing operations company for issues related to the National Uranium Reserve Account.

  • Source: According to registrations  filed with the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House of Representatives. 

Connect with breaking news reporter Rachel Heimann Mercader: @racheyy_marie (Twitter) or rachel.heimann@naplesnews.com