Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin's family situation is becoming a major headache for the South Dakota Democrat in her tough re-election bid, with Republicans ramping up their criticisms of her voting record — and her lobbyist husband's extensive list of clients.
In March 2007, the lawmaker married lobbyist and ex-Rep. Max Sandlin, a Texas Democrat who lost his seat to Rep. Louie Gohmert (R) in 2004. Since his defeat, Sandlin has been a registered lobbyist for Greenberg Traurig and the International Government Relations Group, which now goes by the name Mercury Public Affairs.
According to Senate lobbying records, the former Member represents a number of big-name clients, including Peabody Energy, Air Canada, Advance Auto Parts, the National Association of Broadcasters and Vanguard Health Systems — companies with substantial legislative interests during the 111th Congress.
Max Sandlin did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Herseth Sandlin's campaign also declined to discuss the matter in detail, offering only this statement from campaign spokeswoman Betsy Hart in an e-mail: "It is the policy of Representative Herseth Sandlin that no member of her family may lobby her or any member of her staff."
The Congresswoman's policy appears to be in line with House ethics rules, said Ken Gross, a lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. After a wave of negative press, Democratic leaders in both chambers adopted new — but separate — guidelines in the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007, a proposal that attempted to curb the perceived cozy relationship both parties had with for-profit interests.
As the lawmakers first considered the proposal more than three years ago, ethics watchdog Public Citizen distributed a memo showing 42 Members with relatives that were serving as go-betweens for the business community and the legislative process. The list included past and present Congressional leaders Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as well as Reps. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and James Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Signed by President George W. Bush on Sept. 14, 2007, the ethics law beefed up disclosure requirements, instituted new gift bans and imposed mandatory "cooling off" periods for Members making the switch to lobbying after leaving office.
The law also included chamber-specific restrictions on the lobbying activities of Members' relatives. In the House, registered lobbyists married to Members are barred from "making any lobbying contact" with their spouses or their spouses' staffers. The Senate enacted far more stringent guidelines, barring all immediate family members, including spouses, from lobbying the chamber, according to a Senate Ethics panel lawyer. The Senate restrictions, which also include some exceptions, were an apparent variation of the "Daschle Rule," named for the voluntary ban adopted years before by former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.) and his wife, Linda, a registered lobbyist.
Linda Daschle's work became a minor theme in her husband's ill-fated 2004 race with now-Sen. John Thune (R). Less than a month before that election, Thune's campaign placed a full-page advertisement in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader criticizing a lobbying contract that Linda Daschle's employer had with the drugmaker Schering-Plough.
"Only one candidate has personally profited from big drug companies," the Thune campaign ad said. "That candidate is Tom Daschle."
Tom Daschle is now a senior policy adviser with the law firm DLA Piper.
Six years after Daschle's loss, Republicans are again attempting to stoke anti-Beltway emotions in Herseth Sandlin's race with state Rep. Kristi Noem (R). The race for the statewide district is competitive; the GOP nominee for president two years ago, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), won the Sioux State by 8 points.
Republicans and watchdogs groups argue that Herseth Sandlin is testing the spirit of the nearly 3-year-old rules: avoiding conflicts of interests.
Senate records show that Max Sandlin and his firm were paid $160,000 in 2009 by Baptist Health Care to lobby on its behalf, including for an "increase in [the] new market tax credit" in a Democratic-backed stimulus package that Herseth Sandlin ultimately voted for.
The National Association of Broadcasters paid Sandlin and his firm $320,000 over the past two years to lobby on a variety of issues, including a bill co-sponsored by his wife, the Local Radio Freedom Act.
And Advance Auto Parts employed Sandlin and his firm last year to lobby on the Employee Free Choice Act, legislation co-sponsored by Herseth Sandlin. The contentious "card check" bill, which would make it easier for workers to unionize, is a top target of manufacturers and others in the business community.
Republicans say Herseth Sandlin's committee assignments make it difficult for her to avoid conflicts of interest. She is member of the Agriculture, Natural Resources, Veterans' Affairs and Energy Independence and Global Warming panels, which have broad jurisdiction over many of her husband's clients.
"If South Dakotans were put off by Tom Daschle's lobbying problems, they're going to be incensed with the arrangement between Rep. Herseth Sandlin and her husband," National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Tom Erickson said in a statement. "The fact that Max Sandlin earns a living lobbying for legislation before his wife's committee and bills she co-sponsors is troubling at best and potentially unethical at worst."
House Democrats are calling the GOP criticisms "baseless partisan attacks" that will fail to impress voters.
"Stephanie Herseth Sandlin has always put South Dakota first, and her record proves it," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokeswoman Gabby Adler said in a statement. "Unfortunately, Kristi Noem seems determined to focus her campaign not on the issues facing the country, but instead on personal attacks on Stephanie's family."
But the GOP isn't alone in its interest in Max Sandlin's work connections. A column by political writer Jonathan Ellis in the Argus Leader on June 20 recounted the 2004 Linda Daschle "sub-plot," speculating that "it's likely to happen again this year to Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin."
"Max Sandlin and his firm have amassed a healthy list of clients during the past few years. They include health care interests, energy companies and a posse of others, some familiar, some not," the newspaper wrote. "It's a safe bet that his wife's opponents will scrutinize that list carefully."
The Sunlight Foundation, Public Citizen and other watchdog groups are highly critical of Herseth Sandlin and other Members whose relatives work Congressional corridors. While a conclusive list is unavailable, lobbying records show that Reps. Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), John Mica (R-Fla.) and Blunt also have family members who are registered under the rules of both chambers.
"I would call it sleazy," Public Citizen lobbyist Craig Holman said.
At the very least, watchdog groups argue that the House should adopt the Senate's more stringent guidelines and that all Members should be required to disclose their relationships on their personal financial disclosure forms. Even better, watchdogs say, would be a ban on Members' relatives doing any lobbying under the Dome.
"You really can't have a cooling off' period for family members," Sunlight Foundation spokeswoman Gabriela Schneider said.
Clarification: July 26, 2010
The article should have attributed a June 20 quote from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader to a column by the newspaper's political writer, Jonathan Ellis, not an editorial.