An Asterisk To Obama's Policy On Donations
A presidential hopeful's refusal of lobbyist money has its limits
WASHINGTON ? While pledging to turn down donations from
lobbyists themselves, Sen. Barack Obama raised more than $1
million in the first three months of his presidential
campaign from law firms and companies that have major
lobbying operations in the nation's capital.
Portraying himself as a new-style politician determined to
reform Washington, Obama makes his policy clear in
fundraising invitations, stating that he takes no donations
from "federal lobbyists." His aides announced last week he
was returning $43,000 to lobbyists who donated to his
But the Illinois Democrat's policy of shunning money from
lobbyists registered to do business on Capitol Hill does
not extend to lawyers whose partners lobby there.
Nor does the ban apply to corporations that have major
lobbying operations in Washington. And the prohibition does
not extend to lobbyists who ply their trade in such state
capitals as Springfield, Ill.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and
Sacramento, though some deal with national clients and
"Clearly, the distinction is not that significant," said
Stephen Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a
nonpartisan think tank that focuses on campaign issues.
"He gets an asterisk that says he is trying to be
different," Weissman said. "But overall, the same wealthy
interests are funding his campaign as are funding other
candidates, whether or not they are lobbyists."
A relative newcomer to national politics, Obama stunned the
political world by raising $25.7 million in the first three
months of the year, all but matching money raised by his
main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Obama attained the lofty mark even as he decried the
fundraising system. In his Internet appeals for small
donations, Obama played up populist themes of reform.
"It may sound strange for a presidential candidate to
launch a fundraising drive that isn't about dollars. But
our democracy shouldn't be about money, and it's time our
campaigns weren't either," he said in one such pitch.
In another e-mail seeking money, Obama decried the "special
interest industry in Washington" and warned it would spend
more money than ever to "try to own our political
"We're not going to play that game," the e-mail said.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said Obama instituted the ban
on lobbyist money in reaction to public anger over the Jack
Abramoff lobbying scandal. Burton also acknowledged the
policy has its flaws.
"This ban is part of Obama's best effort to address the
problem of money in politics," Burton said in a statement.
"It isn't a perfect solution to the problem and it isn't
even a perfect symbol. But it does reflect that Obama
shares the urgency of the American people to change the way
Obama said in his first-quarter financial report that he
received money from 104,000 donors, twice as many as
Clinton, suggesting a disproportionate number of small
contributions. But the Campaign Finance Institute said
Obama still received 68% of his money from donations of
$1,000 or more, compared with 86% for Clinton.
Rules for lobbyists
Lobbyists generally are paid by corporations,
unions and other interest groups to shape public policy by
making regular contact with government officials. They must
register with both houses of Congress, and make public
disclosures identifying their clients and the amounts they
Some of the most influential players, lawyers and
consultants among them, skirt disclosure requirements by
merely advising clients and associates who do actual
lobbying, and avoiding regular contact with policymakers.
Obama's ban does not cover such individuals.
For example, partners from the Atlanta-based law firm
Alston & Bird donated $33,000 to Obama in the first 90
days of 2007.
Alston & Bird has a large lobbying division in
Washington. It billed its clients nearly $3.9 million in
2006, ranking 35th among Washington lobbyists. Alston
boasts on its website that it offers clients "unique
experience with how policy is made" and knows "the people
who make it: government and agency officials; members of
Congress and their staff."
Obama kept $2,300 donated by Alston's Tom Daschle, the
former Senate Democratic leader. Daschle, located in
Washington, is neither a lawyer nor a lobbyist. He is a
According to Alston's website, Daschle advises "clients on
issues related to all aspects of public policy with a
particular emphasis on issues related to financial
services, health care, energy, telecommunications and
Daschle did not return phone calls.
While refusing money directly from federal lobbyists, who
get their income from clients, Obama takes money from those
clients. In the first quarter of 2007, he accepted a
combined $170,000 from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, two
financial services giants that have numerous issues pending
in Washington and spent a total of $4.6 million on lobbying
Power provider's largess
Obama's biggest single source of corporate money ?
$160,000 ? came from executives at Exelon Corp., the
nation's largest nuclear power provider, and its
subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison, an Illinois utility.
Exelon spent $500,000 to influence policy in Washington
last year. Although Obama took no money from Exelon's
Washington lobbyists, he accepted $1,000 checks from
lobbyists John P. Novak and James Monk of Springfield. In
Springfield, Novak represents Exelon., and Monk is
president of the Illinois Energy Assn., a trade group that
represents Commonwealth Edison.
Monk and Novak said they do not lobby in Washington. But
their clients care about federal issues, including where to
store nuclear waste and what restrictions to place on
"I'm not going to second-guess his policy," Novak said. "I
think it is appropriate for me to support a presidential
candidate from Illinois."
Lobbyists from other states also gave Obama money. In
California, Obama accepted $2,300 from a partner whose
lobbying firm represents AT&T, United Airlines and the
Recording Industry Assn. of America in Sacramento.
In Tallahassee, Obama held a fundraiser attended by several
statehouse lobbyists, taking checks from lobbyists for
trial attorneys, the insurance industry, fast-food chains
and sugar cane growers. State and federal issues often are
related, as noted by the law firm Akerman Senterfitt, whose
Florida-based members donated $7,000 to Obama. On its
website, Akerman notes it combines Tallahassee connections
with "an involved federal political action committee" to
provide its clients "with an enviable level of access."
"If you cannot be completely pure, is it worth it to be
partially pure? That seems to be debatable," said political
scientist Bruce Cain, director of the University of
California Washington Center, based in the nation's
"We cannot say his policy is completely meaningless," Cain
said. "But it doesn't insulate him from interests."
On May 2, Obama is scheduled to attend a $2,300-per-ticket
breakfast 10 blocks from the Capitol. The hosts include 22
lawyers. Although they are not federal lobbyists, three in
the past have been registered lobbyists; they all work at
firms that have Washington lobbying operations or hire
outside lobbying firms to contact lawmakers.
Lobbyists at the law firms where the lawyers work billed
lobbying clients a combined $19 million in 2006, according
to PoliticalMoneyLine. Clients include defense contractors,
energy producers, healthcare interests, pharmaceutical
manufacturers and tobacco companies.
One lawyer co-hosting the Obama event has represented
companies fending off litigation over toxic waste cleanup,
and another represents employers on affirmative action
requirements, force reduction and early retirement
programs, their firms' websites say.
Attorney Robert Sussman, one of the organizers, said in an
interview that he was a registered lobbyist until recently,
when he decided to help Obama raise money. So that he might
do so, he said, the campaign requested that he drop his
"This is a policy that they felt would be consistent with
their values and their beliefs. I take no position on the
wisdom," Sussman said. "I decided whatever small
inconvenience that was created [by ceasing lobbying] was
more than outweighed by helping the candidate."
See the article on Los Angeles Times website