"John Edwards never -- has ever from the beginning of his political career has never taken PAC money or the money of Washington lobbyists. Ever." -Joe Trippi, senior campaign adviser
John Edwards on Thursday, September 20th, 2007 in a television interview.
Not really never, ever
Um, no, not never, ever.
The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in politics, found that Edwards accepted $14,900 from employees at lobbying firms through June. In 2004, records show that Edwards received $30,630 from lobbying employees, and in 2002, he took in $4,700 from that group.
While those numbers pale in comparison to other top-tier candidates -- Hillary Clinton received $427,950 from lobbyists, McCain $287,150 -- they still contradict Trippi's comment, right?
Not so fast. The spokesman for the center, Massie Ritsch, said those figures include lobbyist donors to Edwards that actually are registered to lobby at the state or local level.
That distinction is an important one to Edwards. When his campaign says Edwards accepts no lobbyist money, they mean only federal lobbyists, not lobbyists registered elsewhere.
"The people who are federal lobbyists are paid to influence federal lawmakers," said Colleen Murray, an Edwards spokeswoman. "You get into the area where somebody's offering their support to get something down the road."
If this sounds familiar, it is. Sen. Barack Obama, a fellow Democrat, has made similar claims about his aversion to federal lobbyist money, while defending his right to collect cash from other influence-seekers.
The Federal Election Commission and Ritsch both vouch for the claim this year that Edwards doesn't take money from Political Action Committees. But according to the Center for Responsive Politics, Edwards did get $2,000 in PAC money in 2004. Of course, out of a total of $33-million he raised that year, what's $2,000?
"In the grand scheme of things, I wouldn't even mention it," said Ritsch.
To weed out Washington lobbyists, the campaign requires donors to check a box declaring that they're not federal lobbyists. In addition, campaign staff cross-checks donor names with the federal lobbying registry. If they see a match, they'll return the donation.
It's not perfect. For instance, the campaign returned $3,700 in July after the Associated Press found that lobbyists had contributed. The AP later reported that of 25,000 individual donations recorded in finance reports, 8,400 didn't name their occupation. The Charlotte Observer found four contributors in September that were Washington lobbyists who hadn't received refunds. Subsequently, the Edwards campaign refunded those, too.
The AP reported in 2004 that Edwards accepted thousands from individuals or groups registered to lobby in Washington, or their spouses or children. Murray said the campaign is taking precautions this year, but it can be difficult —and in some cases unfair — to prevent relatives of lobbyists from giving. "That's a real gray area," she said. "Who's to say that a lobbyist's wife who is a school teacher and wants to give shouldn't be allowed to do so?"
And while lobbyists are shunned, special interests aren't.
Edwards leads all candidates through June 2007 in contributions from lawyers, receiving $6.6-million. Aren't lawyers, including the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, lobbyists?
"Sure they're lobbyists," Ritsch said. "Just because you're not a federally registered lobbyist doesn't mean you don't want something in return. If candidates for office returned every dollar from people who wanted something from them, they wouldn't have any money left."
But the Edwards campaign is sticking to its claim.
As Trippi told Chris Matthews: "Trial lawyers, teachers, they may hire lobbyists. But they don't lobby. The lobbyists are the people who have to register as lobbyists." If the claim had been even a little less absolute, a little less ironclad, we would have seen it as 'True,' given the effort the campaign makes to weed out registered lobbyists. But the best we can do is meet Edwards half-way on this one. Half-True.