These are not good days in politics to have even a whiff of BP crude on your campaign.
And the campaign of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias has just such a whiff.
In the increasingly nasty race for President Barack Obama's old Illinois U.S. senate seat, U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, the Republican candidate, is making the most of it.
A recent Kirk ad begins, "America's biggest environmental disaster ... Where do the candidates stand?"
The announcer first touts Kirk's record and then says, "In contrast, Alexi Giannoulias' top aide was a longtime BP lobbyist."
The aide in question here is Endy Zemenides, a Chicago attorney who is an unpaid senior advisor to the Giannoulias campaign.
Online records of lobbyists filed with the City of Chicago Board of Ethics show Zemenides and his then-law firm Acosta, Kruse, Raines and Zemenides (and later Acosta, Kruse and Zemenides) registered as lobbyists for BP Bovis Global Alliance from 2003 to 2007.
Giannoulias spokesman Matt McGrath called the ad's claim "a real misrepresentation and distortion of facts." Zemenides was a real estate attorney for BP Bovis Global Alliance, a partnership between BP and Bovis to develop the retail, gas station side of the business, McGrath said. Zemenides helped the company on landscaping and zoning issues as the company converted a number of Amoco stations to BPs in the Chicago area. Zemenides was never a lobbyist for BP, McGrath said. It's simply the policy of the City of Chicago that real estate attorneys handling zoning cases register as lobbyists.
"This is not exactly the guys drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico," McGrath said. "This group is not involved in refining or oil exploration. This is strictly to do with retail enterprises. It's guilt by association. He worked for a subsidiary involved in retail gas stations."
The Illinois Republican Party website mocked the Giannoulias campaign response, asking sarcastically, "When is a BP lobbyist not a BP lobbyist? Answer: In Alexi’s world. In Alexi's world, when you're a registered lobbyist, you're actually just an attorney who is required to register as a lobbyist. In Alexi's world, BP gas stations have nothing to do with BP -- they just happen to bear the name and logo. In the real world, Alexi Giannoulias' political director and top aide was a registered BP lobbyist from 2003-2008 -- and that's a fact."
It is a fact that as a zoning attorney for BP Bovis, Zemenides met the definition of a lobbyist under the City of Chicago's Governmental Ethics Ordinance. According to the ordinance, " 'Lobbyist' means any person who, on behalf of any person other than himself, or as any part of his duties as an employee of another, undertakes to influence any legislative or administrative action, including but not limited to ... a zoning matter. ... The term 'lobbyist' shall include, but not be limited to, any attorney, accountant, or consultant engaged in the above-described activities."
But this issue isn't as clear as the Kirk campaign would have you believe, said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the influence of money on campaigns. The rules and regulations about who is a lobbyist vary greatly from city to city and state to state, Levinthal said.
"What might be considered a lobbyist in one large city might not be in a large city 30 miles away, even if they are doing the same kind of work for the same client," Levinthal said.
"Is there a distinction between actively lobbying for BP North America or BP International and someone who may have worked for a subsidiary of BP that is not involved in oil drilling? I think a reasonable person would see there is a distinction to be drawn there," Levinthal said.
It's true, he said, that Zemenides had a financial relationship at some level with the company. "Of course, it happened several years back, and then, certainly, no one was targeting BP as a corporate pariah, as they are today. There is definitely some difference between currently, actively lobbying for BP at the federal level and lobbying for a BP subsidiary several years ago."
Zemenides was never registered as a state or federal lobbyist.
"That's a tough one," said Edwin Bender, executive director of National Institute on Money in State Politics. "It's not quite cut and dried."
"He may be doing technical legal work for them, but on the face of it, that's what he is, a lobbyist," Bender said. Still, he said, "I don't know that I'd make a big connection to the spill."
But that's exactly what the Kirk campaign ad does. It begins, "America's biggest environmental disaster ... Where do the candidates stand?"
By the City of Chicago's definition, Zemenides was a lobbyist for a BP subsidiary. We think it's highly misleading to suggest that he lobbied in any way for a federal policy that allowed the oil spill to occur. We're not saying a lobbyist isn't a lobbyist. But some cities define lobbyist differently.
It's one thing to be an attorney handling landscaping and zoning issues for a company developing retail gas stations; quite another to lobby for lax federal legislation on deepwater oil drilling. The Kirk ad makes too much of very little. We rate the claim Barely True.
Editor's note: This statement was rated Barely True when it was published. On July 27, 2011, we changed the name for the rating to Mostly False.