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Obama 'bundlers' sport close ties to lobbies

Despite a pledge not to take money from lobbyists, President Obama has relied on supporters who are active in the lobbying industry to raise millions of dollars for his re-election bid.
/ Source: The New York Times

Despite a pledge not to take money from lobbyists, President Obama has relied on prominent supporters who are active in the lobbying industry to raise millions of dollars for his re-election bid.

At least 15 of Mr. Obama’s “bundlers” — supporters who contribute their own money to his campaign and solicit it from others — are involved in lobbying for Washington consulting shops or private companies. They have raised more than $5 million so far for the campaign.

Because the bundlers are not registered as lobbyists with the Senate, the Obama campaign has managed to avoid running afoul of its self-imposed ban on taking money from lobbyists.

But registered or not, the bundlers are in many ways indistinguishable from people who fit the technical definition of a lobbyist. They glide easily through the corridors of power in Washington, with a number of them hosting Mr. Obama at fund-raisers while also visiting the White House on policy matters and official business.

As both a candidate and as president, Mr. Obama has vowed to curb what he calls the corrupting influence of lobbyists, barring them not only from contributing to his campaign but also from holding jobs in his administration. While lobbyists grouse about the rules, ethics watchdogs credit the changes with raising ethical standards in Washington.

But the prevalence of major Obama fund-raisers who also work in the lobbying arena threatens to undercut the president’s ethics push, raising questions about whether the campaign’s policies square with its on-the-ground practices, some of those same watchdogs say.

“It’s a legitimate concern,” said Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan ethics group in Washington. “The campaign has to draw the line somewhere, but the reality is that the president is still relying on wealthy special interests and embracing those people in his campaign.”

'Great friends'
Take Sally Susman. An executive at the drug-maker Pfizer, she has raised more than $500,000 for the president’s re-election and helped organize a $35,800-a-ticket dinner that Mr. Obama attended in Manhattan in June. At the same time, she leads Pfizer’s powerful lobbying shop, and she has visited the White House four times since 2009 — twice on export issues.

But under the byzantine rules that govern federal lobbying, Ms. Susman has not registered with the Senate as a lobbyist.

Nor has David L. Cohen, who oversees lobbying at the Comcast Corporation and is also a member of Mr. Obama’s exclusive $500,000 bundling club.

At a June fund-raiser in the backyard of his Philadelphia home, Mr. Cohen hosted the president and some 120 guests who paid at least $10,000 each to attend; Mr. Obama called Mr. Cohen and his wife “great friends.”

As a matter of policy, Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign goes beyond what campaign law requires by refusing contributions from any “individual registered as a federal lobbyist.” Registered lobbyists are not even allowed inside his fund-raising events, and the campaign routinely returns checks from those trying to contribute.

Republican candidates, in contrast, have placed no restrictions at all on accepting lobbyists’ money. Mitt Romney had a closed-door fund-raiser just this week in Washington at the American Trucking Associations that was expected to include many K Street lobbyists.

The Obama campaign, which raised nearly $43 million last quarter, would not specifically discuss its fund-raisers who work in lobbying. Most of the bundlers themselves also declined to comment, referring questions to the campaign.

Through interviews and public records, The New York Times identified at least 15 major fund-raisers for the Obama campaign who have been involved in different aspects of the lobbying and influence industry, representing a range of corporate interests from telecommunications and high-tech software to Wall Street finance, international commerce and pharmaceuticals.

While none of the bundlers is currently registered as a federal lobbyist, at least four of them have been in the past. And a number of the bundlers work for prominent lobbying and law firms, including Greenberg Traurig and Blank Rome.

Flaunting relationships
Although Mr. Obama has helped make lobbying something of a dirty word in Washington — most firms refer to it by the euphemism of “government affairs” — that has not stopped a number of his fund-raisers from advertising their access to power brokers as they seek out clients.

Alex Heckler, for instance, runs a Florida consulting firm he founded, LSN Partners, which boasts of its ability to “win results for our clients” at the national, state and local levels and to tap into “a strong national network of lobbying firms” through its contacts with “key decision makers.”

Mr. Heckler, a noted Democratic fund-raiser in Florida who raised money for the presidential bids of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, has already brought in at least $200,000 for the Obama campaign, records show. (The campaign uses only broad dollar ranges for the money raised by its bundlers, and it declined to provide more precise data.)

Likewise, Andy Spahn, owner of a government relations company in Los Angeles, tells visitors to his Web site about its “extensive relationships in Washington, D.C.,” and elsewhere in advocating for “high net-worth individuals,” corporations, nonprofit groups and others.

Mr. Spahn, who made his name doing lobbying work for DreamWorks film studio and was appointed by Mr. Obama to a presidential committee on the arts, has raised at least $500,000 for the president’s re-election.

And Michael Kempner, who has also brought in at least $500,000 for the campaign, runs a team of Washington lobbyists at his New Jersey firm, MWW Group, who, according to the its promotional material, use their “important relationships with both the Democratic and Republican leadership” to wield influence for their private sector clients.

Seven of the lobbyists he employs are registered in Washington, but Mr. Kempner, the chief executive at the firm, is not.

The Obama campaign declined requests to discuss specific fund-raisers and their ties to lobbying work.

Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman, stressed in a statement that “the president has fought to limit the outsized influence that lobbyists have over the policy making process, passing laws that promote reform and disclosure and establishing rules ensuring that industry lobbyists can’t come into the government to oversee the industry for which they used to work.”

He said that while Republican candidates were actively raising money from special interest groups, Mr. Obama “drew a bright line” by rejecting contributions both from political action committees and from “Washington lobbyists whose job it is to influence federal policymakers.”

'Into the shadows'
The disconnect between Mr. Obama’s public stance on lobbyists and his use of fund-raisers who are active in the lobbying industry rests in part on the ambiguity in the law over who must register as a federal lobbyist.

Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the complicated rules define lobbying in part as “active” or “direct” contacts meant to influence a public official, but they exclude “routine” contacts meant to simply gather information. The rules also take into account a variety of specific criteria, including how much time is spent advocating for a particular client, how much is paid, and which government officials are contacted.

Mr. Obama has run into political problems before over the question of who should be considered a lobbyist under his ethics restrictions.

Just weeks after the inauguration, in fact, Mr. Obama’s first pick as Health and Human Services secretary — former Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota — came under attack for acting as a highly paid “strategic adviser” to clients looking to influence government policy but failing to register as a lobbyist. (His nomination was ultimately withdrawn.)

More controversy came last year over the White House’s informal contacts with lobbyists. The administration drew criticism over reports that White House officials were routinely sitting down with registered lobbyists at off-site locales, like a nearby Caribou Coffee shop, for meetings that would not show up on official White House visitor logs.

Some Washington lobbyists suggest that the Obama administration’s tough public stance against lobbyists has served only to discourage those active in the lobbying industry from registering as lobbyists in the Senate.

“What all this rhetoric does is to drive lobbying even further into the shadows,” said a Democratic lobbyist who works frequently with the administration but spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Obama will not take money from registered lobbyists like me,” the lobbyist said with some bitterness, “but that doesn’t mean that he won’t take money from people who are lobbying. There’s a big difference.”

Barclay Walsh contributed research.

This story, "Obama Backers Tied to Lobbies Raise Millions," originally appeared in the New York Times.