Despite campaign promises, Obama donor base flush with lobbyists

Chris Goodnow Contributor
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In June 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama declared that his campaign would “not take a dime from Washington lobbyists.” Obama and his deputies have repeated that promise many times since then. But a Daily Caller survey of campaign disclosures found that at least five of the 27 individuals and couples who have collected more than $500,000 for the Obama 2012 campaign are closely tied to lobbying firms.

Obama’s top fundraisers, called “bundlers,” pool donations from friends and colleagues while placing the entire contribution under their own name. It is unclear whether the unknown individuals who channeled their donations through the bundlers have lobbyist ties, but the five bundlers themselves either run lobbying firms or lead and direct businesses that hire lobbyists.

Many politicians say they don’t take money from lobbyists, but Obama campaign staffers have been especially vigilant in making sure they don’t accept K Street money, said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the advocacy group Public Citizen.

“Obama’s the only one who has taken it to the point where he said if they’re a hired gun as a registered lobbyist he doesn’t want them on his campaign or raising money for his campaign,” Holman said. “No other presidential candidate has done that.”

In a 2012 fundraising letter to supporters, the Obama campaign wrote, “Our campaign doesn’t take money from Washington lobbyists or special-interest PACs.”

But “lobbyist” is a narrowly defined term.

U.S. citizens have a constitutional right to lobby the federal government, said Holman, but they must formally register themselves as “lobbyists” if they meet any one of three criteria: receiving $5,000 for lobbying or spending $20,000 on lobbying within a 90-day period, contacting two or more government officials during a calendar year, or devoting 20 percent or more of their working hours contacting government officials.

Americans passing one of these means-tests must register with either the Secretary of the Senate or the Clerk of the House of Representatives, depending on which house they lobby. But people who keep their lobbying activities below those benchmarks can avoid registering, even as they advocate for commercial, professional and industrial interest groups.

One of the non-lobbyists, Michael Kempner, is CEO of the federally registered lobbying firm MWW Group. But as an individual, he’s listed in President Obama’s donor rolls as simply being from Cresskill, New Jersey. Kempner founded and runs the lobbying firm, which generated over $4 million dollars in lobbying revenue last year according to opensecrets.org, a website that tracks money in American politics. MWW’s website describes the company as “one of the nation’s five largest public relations agencies.” It has over 100 clients, including large corporations such as Target, McDonald’s, JetBlue Airways, and United Healthcare.

The U.S. Senate’s lobbying disclosure database contains more than 1,400 documents related to organizations for which MWW’s employees have lobbied federal government agencies over the past twelve years. During the first quarter of 2011 alone, MWW collected over $500,000 in lobbying fees from healthcare providers, local communities and universities.

Another non-lobbyist, attorney Robert Sherman, is listed on the Obama donor rolls merely as a resident of Boston. In fact, Sherman is a “founding shareholder” of Greenberg Traurig, one of the nation’s 20 largest lobbying firms. Sherman’s company has earned over $122 million in lobbying fees since 1998. According to the Senate’s lobbying disclosure database, it has engaged in more than 3,000 separate transactions for lobbying services during the past twelve years.

Former New Jersey governor and non-lobbyist Jon Corzine, who donated $24,900 to the Democratic National Committee last October, is Chairman and CEO of MF Global Inc., a derivatives broker-dealer with over $42 billion in assets. MF Global has hired lobbying firm Delta Strategy Group at least eighteen times since 2008, and paid the company more than $350,000 to monitor regulatory activity at Commodity Futures Trading Commission, according to Senate records.

Philanthropist and non-lobbyist Jack Connors, who held a $38,500-per-couple fundraiser for President Obama in May, is Chairman of the Board of Directors of Partners Healthcare System, a non-profit hospital conglomerate and the largest healthcare provider in Massachusetts. Partners has hired numerous lobbyists — at a cost of more than $6.5 million since 2008 — to lobby both houses of Congress, the National Institutes of Health, the White House, and other government agencies.

The Senate’s lobbying disclosure database contains more than 70 lobbying registration forms outlining Partners’ numerous efforts to secure stimulus funds, lobby against Medicare and Medicaid funding cuts, and urge “changes to Medicare hospital reimbursement policies.”

Silicon Valley billionaire and non-lobbyist Marc Benioff, who held a $3 million fundraiser for President Obama last April, is CEO of the “enterprise cloud computing company” Salesforce.com, which has lobbied on its own behalf for privacy, data breach, and cybersecurity concerns. Since 2006, Salesforce.com has spent $637,000 to lobby the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Office of Management and Budget, the Department of State, and other government agencies.

The presence of these informal lobbyists in Obama’s donor base is unsurprising, said Michael Malbin, the Executive Director of the Campaign Finance Institute.

“President Obama has branched money from people who are partners of firms that do lobbying all along. He has done this despite saying that he wouldn’t raise money from lobbyists. It’s not in itself a main issue.”

Despite the bundlers’ ties to lobbying firms, Malbin commented that the Obama campaign has done nothing illegal, and that it should be commended for its transparency.

“President Obama has chosen to disclose [his bundlers] voluntarily. The bigger question is why aren’t the other campaigns doing so? All of them ought to be required under law to do it.”

Holman said lobbyist money and influence continues to be a strong force in national politics, even as candidates promise greater attention to ethics.

“When it comes to any activity in Washington,” he said, “almost everyone is associated with a law firm or group that lobbies.”

Liz Sauchelli contributed to this report.