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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson January 4, 2012

Barack Obama's campaign says it doesn't accept lobbyist donations

In late December, President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign made a fundraising pitch that, among other things, touted the measures his campaign is taking to distance itself from lobbyists:

"We don't take a dime from D.C. lobbyists or special-interest PACs -- never have and never will."

A reader pointed out this claim and asked us if it’s true.

First, we checked with the Obama campaign, and a spokeswoman confirmed that the campaign does not accept money from federally registered lobbyists, either making direct donations themselves or serving as "bundlers" who solicit and package donations from others. To enforce that policy, the campaign continually reviews the federal lobbyist registry.

On the surface, the Obama campaign’s claim seems plausible. But we think it’s important to add some context about how this pledge is phrased.

A key issue is how you define the word "lobbyist."

As we noted in a recent item, to be a registered lobbyist, one has to meet a number of detailed rules laid out in federal law. One of the main rules is that a person has to register if he or she holds two or more meetings with elected officials or staff in any quarter of the year on behalf of a client. Also, lobbying activities must constitute 20 percent or more of the lobbyist’s time during any three-month period. (Want more detail? Read 27 pages of guidance on disclosing lobbying activities via the U.S. Senate website.)
Experts we spoke to said that it’s not uncommon for a former lawmaker or other senior political official to offer "strategic advice" without having to register as a lobbyist.
Strategic advisers can do quite a bit for clients without acquiring the lobbyist label. They can give advice on individuals to meet with and what arguments to make. They can instruct someone who is a registered lobbyist, again telling the lobbyist with whom to meet and what to address. They may take clients to meetings with non-governmental groups, such as grassroots political groups. They may even have one big meeting with an elected official to make a case for a client.
"There’s a lot of activity that ordinary people would think of as lobbying that doesn’t trigger the obligation to register as a lobbyist under federal law. Strategic advice is one of those kinds of things that doesn’t," said Joseph Sandler, an attorney with the Washington law firm Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb. Sandler was one of four co-chairs of an American Bar Association task force that recommended changes to federal lobbying laws to improve disclosure and reduce conflicts of interest.

So by the campaign’s standard, a strategic adviser who doesn’t officially register to lobby -- or a former lobbyist who is no longer registered, or someone who supervises lobbyists but isn’t registered -- is free to give money to the campaign or serve as a bundler.

According to an Oct. 27, 2011, New York Times report, at least 15 of Obama’s bundlers, who collectively have raised at least $5 million, "are involved in lobbying for Washington consulting shops or private companies," advocating interests from "telecommunications and high-tech software to Wall Street finance, international commerce and pharmaceuticals."

None of these 15 bundlers is "currently registered as a federal lobbyist," the Times reported. But "at least four of them have been (officially registered lobbyists) in the past. And a number of the bundlers work for prominent lobbying and law firms, including Greenberg Traurig and Blank Rome."

As examples, the Times cited Sally Susman, David L. Cohen and Michael Kempner, all of whom have raised at least $500,000 for the campaign.

Susman, an executive with drug-maker Pfizer, "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."

Meanwhile, Cohen "oversees lobbying at the Comcast Corporation" and "hosted the president and some 120 guests" at his home in Philadelphia, the Times reported. Guests "paid at least $10,000 each to attend; Mr. Obama called Mr. Cohen and his wife ‘great friends.’"

And Kempner "runs a team of Washington lobbyists" at the MWW Group, a New Jersey-based firm where he serves as CEO. The firm employs seven registered lobbyists in Washington, even though Kempner himself is not one.

The Obama campaign notes that its policy is still more stringent than federal law requires and adds that many of the Republican presidential campaigns have more permissive rules on lobbyist donations. The Obama campaign, for instance, voluntarily releases its list of bundlers.

In addition, the Obama campaign is hardly alone in setting the standards as it has. Experts we spoke to said that it’s not uncommon for campaigns to say they’re banning lobbyist money but to allow the same sorts of activities permitted by the Obama campaign.

"A world of strategic consultants and state-level lobbyists can, and do, give," said Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that analyzes campaign-finance issues.

There are other ways for a campaign to benefit from the support of lobbyists without accepting their money.

"Even campaigns that say they will not accept lobbyists’ campaign contributions typically accept other forms of help from lobbyists, such as door knocking, poll watching and the like," said Robert K. Kelner, an attorney with the firm Covington & Burling who specializes in political and election law.

Lobbyists can also make sure that their clients "are given good advice on where and when to give, especially with all the entities available -- candidate PACs, leadership PACs, super PACs, 501(c)4s, trade associations, party committees, state party committees and so on," McGehee said. "A big dog lobbyist will help steer their clients, and the executives of that client, to ‘smart’ giving."

Our ruling

The Obama campaign has a point that it doesn’t "take a dime from D.C. lobbyists or special-interest PACs." But this leaves out important details. The campaign -- like others before it -- uses a narrow definition of "lobbyist" that allows donations and fundraising by people who most likely look, to the average American, like "lobbyists," even if they are not officially. In addition, the Obama campaign’s policy doesn’t bar even federally registered lobbyists from serving as volunteers for the campaign, as long as they don’t give or bundle money. On balance, we rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

Obama-Biden campaign, fundraising appeal, Dec. 28, 2011

New York Times, "Obama Backers Tied to Lobbies Raise Millions," Oct. 27, 2011

E-mail interview with Allison Hayward, vice president of policy at the Center for Competitive Politics, Jan 3, 2012

E-mail interview with Robert K. Kelner, attorney with Covington & Burling, Jan. 3, 2012

E-mail interview with Meredith McGehee, policy director for the Campaign Legal Center, Jan. 3, 2012

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