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On the U.S. Senate campaign trail, one of the four Republican candidates answers to "Governor" but most often just plain "Tommy."
Just don’t call Tommy Thompson a lobbyist.
Republican rival candidate Eric Hovde and Democrats have rankled Thompson with the label "corporate lobbyist."
It’s a pointed reference to Thompson’s lucrative private-sector affiliation with dozens of health and other companies that have benefitted from the connections and experience Thompson gained in Washington, D.C. Some of the companies deal with industry regulators that Thompson oversaw as Secretary of Health and Human Services during the George W. Bush administration.
In January 2012, the Journal Sentinel reported Thompson’s net worth has reached roughly $13 million, much of in the seven years since he left government and began a career as corporate consultant and advisor, executive, investor and speaker.
Thompson says the "corporate lobbyist" label is flat out false.
But Hovde, in a July 26, 2012 interview with Jerry Bader on WTAQ-AM in Green Bay, pressed the claim, even saying Thompson was "lobbying during the middle of the campaign."
Is Hovde right? Even during the campaign?
Hovde makes three points in support of his statement: Thompson’s employment at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld in Washington, D.C.; a media report on Thompson contacting a North Carolina lawmaker; and a campaign-donation report that listed Thompson’s occupation as "lobbyist."
Hovde correctly calls Akin Gump a "lobbying firm" -- it’s considered a Washington lobbying powerhouse. But it’s also an international law firm, and Thompson, an attorney, was listed as a partner before he left in January 2012 to campaign for U.S. Senate.
Some Akin Gump partners are registered lobbyists while others, such as Thompson, are not registered to lobby, according to public databases of federal lobbyists.
Thompson points to his unregistered status as proof he’s not a lobbyist.
But does that mean Thompson doesn’t lobby federal officials? Not by itself.
Federal law requires individuals to register as lobbyists if they have more than one lobbying contact in a three-month period while representing a client. The work must make up at least 20 percent of the lobbyist’s work for a client.
Thompson, then, could limit such contacts, put his influence to work, and still fly beneath the rules.
"We have at least 3,000 unregistered lobbyists, and the number is probably far higher than that," said Howard Marlowe, a lobbying firm president and head of the American League of Lobbyists, who spoke in general and not specifically about Thompson.
So, Hovde proves nothing by pointing to Thompson’s employer and didn’t point to a single lobbying incident. Thompson’s defense, meanwhile, is a point in his favor but does not close the case.
Hovde referred us to a May 2012 Bloomberg news account -- confirmed by Thompson -- in which the former governor called the speaker of the North Carolina state House of Representatives about a state bill toughening regulations on controversial dental management companies.
Private-equity firms have invested heavily in such firms, and Thompson has consulted with several private-equity firms, leading to speculation he was lobbying against the bill -- and right in the midst of the Senate race.
But the North Carolina lawmaker, Thom Tillis, says he and Thompson never connected. Thompson told us he called not on behalf of a paying client, but a "friend of a friend" -- whose name he could not recall -- who wanted to know when the bill would be considered.
So, at best that part of the claim is murky.
Finally, there’s the matter of U.S. Sen. John Hoeven (R-North Dakota) listing Thompson as a "lobbyist" on a 2010 campaign report showing a $1,000 donation from Thompson. There is a document showing that in Federal Election Commission records.
Thompson’s campaign says Thompson didn’t list himself that way, suggesting that Hoeven’s campaign erroneously wrote in that occupation. Hoeven’s campaign did not get back to us.
The big picture
We could not find any media references that labeled Thompson a lobbyist.
One Thompson affiliation that drew our attention was his role as chairman of an advisory board at Constella Group, a North Carolina medical research firm.
Constella’s CEO has said Thompson was brought on to "connect" the company with U.S. and foreign governments and advise it on growth strategies. Constella then agreed to hire Akin Gump -- but not Thompson specifically -- as its lobbyist, the Journal Sentinel reported in 2007.
That’s getting closer to what a lobbyist does, but Thompson told us nothing he did for Constella constituted lobbying, and we found no evidence otherwise.
In Washington, the kind of work Thompson does is often described as either a "strategic advice" consultant or a "rainmaker" whose influence and connections bring work to his firm.
Bill Broydrick, a veteran lobbyist in Wisconsin and Washington, put it this way: "A consultant’s responsibility is to give his or her client their best professional advice, and that is not lobbying. That’s telling people how they should lobby."
Indeed, Thompson has told reporters that he does work with a lobbyist at Akin Gump who lobbies for health care clients. An Akin Gump spokesman told us: "Gov. Thompson was a strategic adviser in Akin Gump’s health care practice, and did not engage in any activity that required him to register as a lobbyist."
Thompson’s situation reminds us somewhat of the debate during the GOP presidential primary over Newt Gingrich’s statement that he "never lobbied under any circumstance" for Freddie Mac, a mortgage company giant connected to the federal government.
Gingrich acknowledged that Freddie Mac hired his consulting group but he said it was only for strategic advice and broadening contacts among conservatives, not lobbying.
In rating Gingrich’s claim Half True, PolitiFact National said he was technically correct but took pains to avoid being subject to the lobbying rules and use his influence as an adviser.
Thompson appears to have taken similar pains. He told us Akin Gump wanted him to register as a lobbyist, but he refused.
He is far less definitive when asked directly if he has ever contacted a legislator on behalf of any corporate client to urge action on a bill. He first told us he didn’t think he had, but then said couched it to say he couldn’t say for sure.
Not exactly a denial.
Hovde claims Thompson was a corporate lobbyist and has even lobbied during the current campaign.
By the official definition, Hovde is off. Thompson is not a registered lobbyist and the the only significant evidence of direct contact with an elected official is the North Carolina example.
On the other hand, it’s clear that Thompson has sold his influence and connections to firms to whom it would benefit on Capitol Hill, but did so in a way -- as a consultant -- to avoid having to register.
As with the Gingrich claim, we rate this one Half True.
WTAQ Radio, The Jerry Bader Show, "Eric Hovde Responds to Attacks," July 26, 2012
Journal Sentinel editorial board, video of interview with Tommy Thompson, Aug. 2, 2012
Phone interview with Bill Broydrick, founder, Broydrick & Associates, Aug. 2, 2012
Phone interview with Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Company lobbying firm and president of the American League of Lobbyists, Aug. 2, 2012
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,"Thompson a lobbyist?" July 9, 2012
Email interview with Brian Nemoir, spokesperson for Tommy Thompson’s Senate campaign, Aug. 4, 2012
Bloomberg News, "Republicans hit dental bill that private equity hates," May 30, 2012
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Tommy Inc.", June 10, 2007
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Thompson’s assets top $13 million," Jan. 26, 2012
Email interview with Ben Harris, communications director, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, August 9, 2012
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