As those involved recounted months later in video-taped remarks for an equine welfare conference, the vice president quickly went to bat.
“I turned also to Frank and said, ‘We may need a little help from the vice president and the administration talking to some senators,’” the lobbyist-slash-state-senator, Joseph Abruzzo, recalled in the videotaped remarks.
Joe Biden, who had already hosted Abruzzo and his client for a meeting at the Naval Observatory, leaned on Mitch McConnell to overcome the minority leader’s objections.
“My brother’s long-term relationships in the Senate proved to be the final nail in the coffin to be able to pull this thing forward,” Frank Biden said on the video, recounting the group’s successful efforts to change the law.
Those involved now deny Abruzzo requested Frank Biden’s help enlisting his older brother’s support or that Frank Biden ever sought charter school funding from Abruzzo, though the two men scheduled a meeting to discuss “charter school funding” a month before Abruzzo began lobbying on the slaughter measure, according to emails obtained by POLITICO through Florida’s public records laws.
They say any action they did take was all for a good cause. But it was also part of a decades-long pattern in which the private business dealings of Joe Biden’s relatives have overlapped with Biden’s public duties. The Democratic front-runner has categorically denied taking official actions to benefit his relatives, telling POLITICO in August that he maintained an “ absolute wall” between their business dealings and his role as Barack Obama’s vice president.
In the case of the horse slaughter measure, however, interviews, public records, emails, and video reviewed by POLITICO tell a different story — one in which the vice president went to great lengths to secure a measure sought by a lobbyist who was a close associate of his brother.
In fact, after Frank Biden and Abruzzo teamed up on the horse measure — and after Abruzzo received nearly $900,000 in lobbying fees from his wealthy client — the pair teamed up again to lead the government relations division of a law firm in Florida, where they have been pushing a high-profile class action lawsuit.
Now, those involved are revising their accounts. Despite the video-taped remarks and the thanks that Frank Biden received when the measure passed Congress in January 2014, he told POLITICO during an initial interview that he was not involved in pushing the horse measure. He said he did not discuss it with the lobbyist until after it had passed Congress.
Then, in a follow-up conversation, Frank Biden said he did advise the lobbyist on how to steer the measure through Congress, though he maintained he never discussed the matter with his older brother.
At first, the heiress, Victoria McCullough, told POLITICO that the year after the measure passed, she hired Frank Biden to work for her oil company, helping it to navigate the federal bureaucracy as she sought government contracts. “Frank Biden is very close to me,” she said. “He worked for me.”
But a day later, after Abruzzo disputed her account and said he needed to “refresh her memory,” McCullough called back with a different story. “Frank was never working for us,” she said.
A spokesman for the Biden campaign, Andrew Bates, declined to comment on the record.
For his part, Frank Biden said he has not benefited financially from the former vice president’s public service. “I’ve never made a dime from any association with my brother Joey and it’s just wrong to imply otherwise,” he said. “Just wrong.”
The youngest Biden brother
The youngest of three Biden brothers, Frank was just a teenager when Joe, 11 years his senior, was elected to the U.S. Senate. Since then, Frank’s adult life has been sprinkled with a variety of entrepreneurial ventures — including alternative energy, resort development and rehab clinics — that often invoke his connection to his powerful older brother.
For the last decade and a half, he has lived in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where he grew close with fellow residents McCullough and Abruzzo before helping them push the horse-slaughter measure.
The issue of slaughtering horses for meat has bounced around state and national politics for over a decade. While humans consume horse meat in some cultures, the practice has never been widespread in the United States. Animal rights activists and equestrians consider it abhorrent.
In 2007, under legal pressure, the existing U.S. plants for processing horse meat shut down, but for several years, a political fight over the practice ensued in several states and at the national level.
“The horse slaughter issue came up every year. It was always a fight,” recalled Tom Rooney, a Republican congressman from Florida from 2009 to 2019, who opposed horse slaughter. “This issue, I kid you not, caused more problems in Congress than you could imagine. They [House leadership] would not bring the Agriculture Appropriations bill to the floor because of this issue, ever, for 10 years.”
Victoria McCullough was at the forefront of that fight. As the daughter of Rex Davis, the founder of Chesapeake Petroleum — which has been described as being at one point the country’s largest private oil company — McCullough had inherited the company from her father and taken over its operations. An equestrian, philanthropist and prolific rescuer of unwanted horses, McCullough had long been a prominent advocate of equine welfare as well.
In 2008, she found a reliable ally. That year, Abruzzo, then in his late 20s, ran for the state House of Representatives in a south Florida district in Palm Beach County. McCullough, who kept horses on her sprawling estate in the village of Wellington in the district, took Abruzzo under her wing, and tutored him to become a horse welfare advocate.
Abruzzo won his race, and in 2010 he filed a horse protection bill in the Florida House, naming it for his patron. The Ivonne Rodriguez and Victoria McCullough Horse Protection Act became the first state law in the country to make it a felony to slaughter horses for personal or commercial purposes.
From there, McCullough refocused on a federal measure. In 2011, she and Abruzzo were granted an audience with Joe Biden at his residence at the Naval Observatory. A photo of the meeting attached to an Equine Welfare Alliance press release shows the then-vice president leaning forward, hands clasped together, while McCullough reclines on a white couch next to Abruzzo.
Biden made for a natural ally, having supported similar measures in the past. In 2006, he was among 34 co-sponsors of a Senate bill that sought to ban horse slaughter, and among 38 co-sponsors of a similar bill in 2007. In his last four years in the Senate, the Humane Society had awarded him ratings ranging from 60 to “100+” on its annual congressional scorecards.
McCullough said she was initially given 30 minutes, because the vice president was preparing to travel abroad, but that he kept shooing away his minders as the meeting dragged on for three hours.
McCullough said that Abruzzo and Joe Biden figured out that defunding the U.S.D.A. inspections of facilities that slaughtered horses would make it impossible to legally operate such facilities, effectively banning the practice.
Asked how she was able to land the meeting with the vice president, McCullough said she had long-standing relationships with Frank Biden, as well as with Joe’s late son, Beau, and with Biden staffers.
Although McCullough had secured the vice president’s support, the battle over horse slaughter continued. McCullough and Abruzzo, who was elected to the Florida senate in 2012, set about securing the support of other federal lawmakers and administration officials.
Though the Obama administration did not support horse slaughter, by 2013, the practice was set to return. Under legal pressure from ranchers and firms that wanted to slaughter horses, the Department of Agriculture approved a new horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico, and, according to a Congressional Research Service report, prepared to greenlight others.
In April of that year, the Obama administration released a budget that included the defunding measure, which would halt the impending return of the practice.
Many animal rights groups, including the Humane Society, backed the defunding measure. But ranchers, looking for a way to dispose of horses who had outlived their usefulness, opposed it. So did the American Veterinary Medical Association, citing a 2011 Government Accountability Office study. The study found that defunding USDA inspections actually harmed animal welfare by pushing horse owners to ship their horses to slaughterhouses in Canada and Mexico. The GAO report also found evidence that banning slaughter led to an increase in owners abandoning or neglecting unwanted horses.
McCullough and other proponents of a ban took issue with the GAO’s findings, and argued that horses were unsafe to eat because they were not subject to the same regulations that governed the care and feeding of other livestock, such as cattle.
In April 2013, McCullough appeared with Abruzzo at the American Equine Summit and called him, “My favorite politician in the entire world.” One month later, Abruzzo registered to lobby the federal government on her behalf, pushing the defunding measure at a rate of $15,000 a month.
At the time, according to public disclosures, Frank Biden was also a lobbyist, registered in Florida to lobby the state legislature on behalf of Mavericks in Education, a chain of for-profit charter schools of which he was president.
Part of his Florida lobbying efforts included at least one scheduled meeting with Abruzzo about “charter school funding,” according to emails obtained by POLITICO through Florida’s public records laws. In the emails, which were first mentioned in a 2014 article in the Florida Times-Union, fellow lobbyist Nancy Ann Texeira corresponds with an Abruzzo aide to set up a meeting with the lawmaker on April 9, 2013, at Abruzzo’s Tallahassee office. The meeting was also set to include Frank Biden, according to the emails. At the time, Abruzzo sat on the appropriations subcommittee on education.
Frank was registered to lobby on behalf of charter schools from 2011 to 2014, according to Florida state records. Frank Biden’s name is missing from a separate database in which Florida lobbyists disclose their compensation. In an email, Frank Biden said he did not file a compensation disclosure because he was a salaried employee of Mavericks and did not receive additional compensation for lobbying.
Charter school funding has been a perennial issue in Tallahassee, with industry advocates and supporters of traditional public schools battling over their share of funding. Among the points of contention in 2013: Charter school advocates sought more money from a public fund for school construction and maintenance.
In late April of that year, legislative leaders, a group that did not include Abruzzo, met behind closed doors and agreed to increase charter schools’ share of the fund from $55 million to $91 million, a move that pleased industry leaders and disappointed advocates of public schools.
Abruzzo said he generally did not take take pro-charter school stances in the legislature and that he did not recall the April 9 meeting taking place. Frank Biden also said he did not recall the April 9 meeting ever taking place. “But,” he added. “I’ve been in Joey’s office a hundred times. He’s like family.”
Despite these regular office visits — while Frank was a lobbyist for charter schools and while Abruzzo sat on the subcommittee overseeing education funding — both men said that Frank never lobbied Abruzzo at all.
“I always had an open door policy for my friends and family, people from the district, in our Senate office,” Abruzzo said. “When Frank needed to use my office for whatever reason — to put down his bag, relax — when he was working the Capitol, he as well as many others had full access.”
How Joe Biden intervened with Mitch McConnell
Back in Washington, in January 2014, the omnibus budget passed with the defunding measure included.
Horse advocates celebrated the achievement in April at the American Equine Summit in Chatham, New York. Promotions for the event said it would feature a special video message from the vice president himself, though McCullough said he did not end up delivering one (Instead, she said, he ended up providing a full-page message that was included in the event program for one of the group’s fundraisers in Saratoga, New York).
The summit included a lengthy talk by McCullough describing the legislative process. “We inserted this into the Omnibus privately, secretly, basically, under the radar so opposition wasn’t there,” McCullough explained in her remarks, but said that even after getting the measure through committee, it still faced hurdles in the Senate.
“The two individuals that are the most pro-slaughter in America, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, these two people in leadership were the roadblock and this is where the vice president is a hero,” McCullough said at the conference. “After Rules Committee approved unanimously, the next step was leadership. The vice president sought that leadership agreement that they would stand down and support this particular issue.” It worked.
“This is the kind of guy you want,” McCullough said of the vice president. “This is the kind of guy that you just get into his office and you know he’ll go with you and he’ll stay with you.”
In an interview, McCullough told POLITICO McConnell was the single biggest hurdle, and recounted how Joe Biden won the Republican leader’s support in a face to face meeting on Capitol Hill.
Just before the meeting, she said, Biden told her, “This going to take just a few minutes. This is a very good man. We’ve differed our whole careers, but we have a friendship and a respect for each other, and we’ve had 27 years in the Senate together.”
“I said, ‘Oh, good luck,’” McCullough recalled, then she sat on a bench in the hallway while Joe Biden huddled with McConnell for roughly 15 minutes. When Biden emerged, she recalled, “He had a big smile on his face, and we had support that day.” A spokesman for McConnell, David Popp, referred questions to Biden’s team.
The summit also featured pre-taped remarks from Abruzzo and Frank Biden.
In the video, the duo sat side by side in suits and ties at a desk on a veranda in Tallahassee,
and Frank Biden offered McCullough his well-wishes. “We have a special place in our heart in the Biden family for Victoria,” he said. “Joe and I wish we were with you, but we’re with you in spirit.”
He and Abruzzo also provided their own detailed account of the legislative effort.
“We got pretty much unanimous support in both the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee thanks to our great advocacy and work from Frank and Joe [Biden],” Abruzzo recalled.
But, as Abruzzo recounted, the upper chamber presented obstacles, and to get the measure through the Senate, he turned to allies including the Bidens and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a fellow south Florida Democrat who opposed horse slaughter and was then chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
“In the Senate committee, that was a little bit trickier, and Victoria met personally one-on-one with Debbie Wasserman Schultz late at night the evening before the vote came up, and she sat down with with our chair and worked out a strategy of contacting members,” he said. “I turned also to Frank and said, ‘We may need a little help from the vice president and the administration talking to some senators.’ And when Frank and the vice president and Chair Wasserman Schultz jumped in, by the morning sunrise, after Victoria’s advocacy as well, we had no opposition and a voice vote and a passage of appropriations.” A spokesman for Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz did not respond to a request for comment.
“My brother’s long-term relationships in the Senate proved to be the final nail in the coffin to be able to pull this thing forward,” Frank Biden added. “It’s great when you have a voice vote. You know you’re a winner before you walk in the door.”
Frank Biden also praised Abruzzo, saying, “He had great direction from Victoria. He had great strength in being able to use the vice president’s hammer.” Abruzzo’s pull in Washington proved lucrative. Between 2013 and 2018, he received a total of $885,000 from McCullough to lobby on the issue, according to his lobbying disclosures.
Rooney, the former congressman, was among a list of people thanked in the Equine Welfare Alliance’s January 2014 press release for helping pass the measure. He recalled that the vice president was instrumental in the measure’s passage. “I remember Biden getting involved and having a lot of pull to get it in there,” Rooney told POLITICO. Frank Biden was also among those thanked in the press release.
But now, Abruzzo and Frank Biden are contradicting their videotaped remarks. Abruzzo now says he never asked Frank Biden for help enlisting the vice president’s support, and that he merely sought Frank Biden’s advice on how best to promote the measure.
For his part, Frank Biden at first said he had nothing to do with the defunding measure, saying he only got involved after it passed Congress, and only to film the congratulatory video with Abruzzo.
Asked how that squares with the account provided in the video, Frank Biden responded, “It’s not difficult to understand in terms of what my support [was] for the entire issue. And so what we’re talking about is really simply the effort in toto. Again, [Abruzzo] turned to me to help him and support him in scores of things and, had up until that point, asked me for advice on lots of different issues and continues to.”
Asked if Abruzzo had sought his advice on the defunding measure before it passed Congress in the omnibus, Frank Biden said, “No. No. He was a facile state senator and didn’t need my advice in terms of legislative procedure.”
But in a follow-up phone call later the same day, Frank Biden revised his account, saying he did advise Abruzzo on the measure before it passed Congress. At first, he said he did not know how the measure became law. “I don’t even know whether it was through Congress or not through Congress,” he said of the measure. He added, “You’re not going to catch me on a date and a time.”
But, in the same phone call, he said he did advise Abruzzo on passing the measure as it wound its way through Congress. “I advised him on tactics,” he said. “I was not the mechanic fixing the engine. I was the old salt standing close by the young guy’s ear.”
Both Frank Biden and a person familiar with the situation said Frank made no money for his work on the horse measure.
But, Frank Biden added,”I would have been happy, happy to have been offered the job and to be paid for it.”
Since their big win on Capitol Hill, Abruzzo, McCullough and Frank Biden have remained close.
Initially, McCullough said that after the measure passed, she hired Frank Biden to work for Chesapeake Petroleum from 2015 to 2017 for help navigating the federal bureaucracy. At the time, she was exploring the possibility of becoming a government contractor. “The Bidens were very important and very helpful, and I needed someone that knew the agencies as well as he did,” she said, citing Frank Biden’s legislative affairs work during the Clinton administration. “He was very trusted. And he’s very personable. And I was very close to him.”
However, Abruzzo contested this version of events, saying he, rather than Frank, did the work described by McCullough. “Frank was not a part of that,” Abruzzo said. “So I’m positive she just confused my extra work role for her.”
Instead, Abruzzo said, he and Frank Biden explored a Chesapeake-related business idea in 2018, and any money Frank Biden received was related to that abortive venture. “Frank Biden did not have a payment until well after his brother was out of office,” Abruzzo said. “There was a marginal trip accommodation and payment for time.”
He also said he would call his client to “refresh her memory on what occurred — how, when, and why.”
A few minutes later, McCullough called a POLITICO reporter to provide a different version of events. “Frank was never working for us,” she said.
Instead, she said, Frank Biden was merely helpful in conversations with her, but that money did not change hands. “I could consult with him,” she said. “I mean, you could call up Frank Biden at any moment to consult with him, if you’re me.” (McCullough has also hosted an event for the Beau Biden Foundation, which seeks to combat child abuse.)
“I never worked for Victoria, period, end of story,” Frank Biden said, indicating that he would have his bankers at Wells Fargo send over financial statements to corroborate his version of events. As of press time, no statements had arrived.
Over the past decade, Frank Biden has devoted his time to politically tinged business ventures.
After a chance encounter with the founder of Mavericks around 2008, Frank joined up with the charter school chain, serving for a time as its president in addition to his lobbying work for the firm.
Mavericks set out with big expansion plans, but they hit a snag in early 2011 when school officials in Palm Beach County recommended that its application to open a location there be denied, citing problems with its budget projections.
At a February 2011 school board meeting, Frank pushed back on the report, saying, “I give you my word of honor on my family name that this system is sustainable.” He was convincing, and the school board made the unusual decision to override the recommendation that the application be denied.
Debra Robinson, the lone school board member to vote against reversing the denial, attributed the board’s decision to Frank Biden’s influence. “Because people have big dogs that lobby for ’em, we are able to see better?” she told the Miami New Times. “No. I see it as an exception to the rules.”
Questions continued to arise about the chain’s practices: its classes were all taken on computers and its executives also ran a chain of restaurants, which, along with the schools, had an endorsement deal with Miami Heat star Dwayne Wade that ended in acrimony.
Frank Biden provided assurances that he would hold his activities to the highest standards. “Everything I do… I’ve got to know that it could appear on the front page of the New York Times,” he told the New Times in 2011. “Do my best never to do anything to besmirch [Joe’s] reputation.”
But Mavericks ended up mired in a number of controversies, and Joe Biden got wrapped up in his younger brother’s charter school promotion.
In October 2014, a Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation concluded that Mavericks was “failing to make the grade,” citing low graduation rates and financial irregularities. Investigators from the Obama Department of Education concluded that “questionable, possible fraudulent, activities occurred with regard to Free & Reduced-price applications” for student meals, and forwarded their findings to state investigators. Florida authorities meanwhile, found that the Palm Beach County school was among several Mavericks locations receiving funding for students who were not enrolled and failing to meet state minimums for teaching hours.
Also that fall, supporters of Tom Sutterfield, a Republican running in a nonpartisan school board in Palm Beach County, drew notice for mailers that featured a photo of Sutterfield with Vice President Joe Biden and that declared the candidate was “endorsed by Frank Biden.”
The mailer was sent out by Families for Lower Taxes, a group financed in part by pro-charter school groups, according to the Palm Beach Post. “I’m trying to show I’m working with both sides of the aisle – not exclusively Republicans, not exclusively Democrats,” Sutterfield told the paper in late October 2014.
He said the photo had been taken several weeks earlier in Boca Raton. On October 13, Joe Biden had traveled to the city to campaign for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist.
Sutterfield told POLITICO that Frank Biden helped arrange for him to meet the vice president backstage at a political event, and that he thanked Joe Biden for supporting charter schools while the two snapped a photo together. Sutterfield, who lost his race, said he did not recall the exact date or nature of the event. “I was one of the only candidates in the country endorsed by Marco Rubio and supported by the Biden family,” he said of his unusual campaign.
Frank Biden said he did not help Sutterfield get access to his brother and that he was unaware of any photo. “Does Tom have a photo with Joe?” he asked.
And in a July email, Frank Biden offered a positive assessment of his record with Mavericks. “My brother had nothing to do with any of my past or present business activities,” he said. “My involvement with Mavericks was motivated by a desire to provide educational opportunity for high school dropouts and marginalized kids to obtain an accredited high school diploma. We did that. Check the record.”
Meanwhile, in recent years, the Abruzzo-Biden alliance has grown closer. Abruzzo was among the supporters calling for Joe Biden to enter the 2016 presidential campaign, though the vice president ultimately passed it up. In June 2017, when Joe Biden traveled to Hollywood, Florida, for a Democratic Party dinner, he posed for a photo in between his younger brother and Abruzzo, and he gave Abruzzo a shoutout during his remarks at the event.
In July 2018, the Berman Law Group, a Boca Raton firm with specialties including personal injury and family law, announced that it had hired Frank Biden to join Abruzzo in heading its government relations practice.
This year, on June 4, the firm announced a class action suit against sugar companies in Palm Beach County, alleging that their controlled burns of sugar cane fields were causing health problems for local residents. In response, one of the defendants, U.S. Sugar, issued a response defending the safety of its practices.
A video released by the firm to accompany the lawsuit features black residents talking about the alleged health effects of the sugar cane burns and describes the goal of the suit as ending “environmental and health damages to poor communities.”
That same day, the Biden campaign unveiled its climate plan, which pledged to “Stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.”
Frank Biden told the Florida Sun-Sentinel that the timing was “absolutely serendipitous.” There was, he said, “absolutely no coordination.”
Marc Caputo, Helena Bottemiller Evich and Matt Dixon contributed to this report.