Lobbyists Give to Obama Campaign

Despite Policy, Their Checks Clear

Posted July 29, 2008 at 7:01pm

Lobbyists might be persona non grata on the presidential campaign trail, but that hasn’t put them off of donating to the presumptive Democratic nominee, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.).

Obama has pledged to forgo contributions from federally registered lobbyists. Yet, more than 40 have donated nearly $15,000 to his presidential campaign this year, according to records recently filed with the Senate and House.

The latest tally, as of Tuesday, comes as lobbyists have begun filing their LD-203 forms, a requirement of the Honest Government and Open Leadership Act of 2007. The provision requires lobbyists and all lobbying organizations to file forms to the Senate and House by July 30 and Jan. 30 that list ties to political action committees, federal campaign contributions over $200 and expenditures for events that honor officials covered by the law.

On the GOP side, more than 440 lobbyists have contributed to presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain’s (Ariz.) presidential bid this year. While the McCain campaign has taken a hard line on lobbyist involvement in his campaign recently, he has not pro- hibited them from contributing. The list is not exhaustive because the deadline for filing is today.

The Obama campaign said it has not changed its policy regarding lobbyist contributions and that it continues to take steps to ensure such contributions are returned.

“Individuals who donate either have to check a box indicating that they are not a federally registered lobbyist, or fill out a donor card with a disclaimer that says we don’t accept lobbyist money,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail. “For when these voluntary measures fail, we also check contributions against a database and decline or return all contributions from federally registered lobbyists.”

Despite those measures, only two of the 42 federally registered contributing lobbyists, David Taylor of Weil Gotshal & Manges and Kyle Danish of Van Ness Feldman, reported on their forms that the Obama campaign had refunded their money.

Others say that since their initial donation, they’ve received several fundraising requests.

“I sent a small check,” said Victor Kamber, a lobbyist at Carmen Group Inc. who gave Obama $200 after he had maxed out to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) campaign. “Since then I’ve been heavily inundated.”

Kamber, who is registered to lobby on behalf of Washington Hospital Center and MedStar Health, says he hasn’t received a refund from Obama.

This is the first time that campaign contributions, which are also disclosed by candidates at the Federal Election Commission, are being reported to Congress.

Many of the lobbyists who reported campaign contributions work for nonprofit organizations, including the Wilderness Society, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Fight Crime: Invest in Kids. Additionally, several of the contributions were in increments under the $200 threshold that triggers reporting.

The new form spurred some lobbyists to evaluate whether they were required to register and to terminate some registrations that were out of date.

For example, Elliot Feldman of Baker Hostetler said he terminated his registration on behalf of San Antonio Trade Group Inc. in July because the work he had done to help craft legislation to require an inspector general to oversee the export- import bank was completed nearly two years ago.

“The fact that the [Lobbying Disclosure Act] required me to register frankly didn’t even occur to me when I made the campaign donation,” Feldman said of his $2,300 contribution to Obama. “The lobbying I did had less than nothing to do with Sen. Obama or committees he was on. It was completely unrelated.”

Similarly, Donald Barry of the Wilderness Society, who gave Obama $2,050, has terminated his registration for the group.

Feldman says he draws a distinction between lobbyists and lawyers like himself.

“I don’t grease palms; I advocate,” Feldman said. “When clients buy the services of a lobbyist, they buy access. When people buy the services of a lawyer, you buy advocacy.”

Obama doesn’t make that distinction. Instead, his campaign uses the trigger of registering as a federal lobbyist as the marker of whether it will accept donations. Further, Obama’s campaign says that the new disclosure, which Obama supported, is another means for it to track whether contributors are lobbyists.

“Because of a law championed by Sen. Obama, lobbyists are now required to disclose their contributions, which gives us another chance to make sure we haven’t taken any money from lobbyists,” Vietor said. “Any contributions from lobbyists that weren’t already returned will be soon.”