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Top five lobbyist bundlers revealed; four worked exclusively for Democrats

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Only in Washington, D.C., would "bundling" be a highly prized skill. And perhaps only in the nation's capital would an exclusive ranking of top “bundlers” qualify as crucial information. But a Center for Public Integrity analysis has now revealed the operatives at the top of the lists.

Bundlers are a relatively new breed of political animal — friendly, talkative, and charming, able to gather dozens of checks from their friends and colleagues and hand them over to federal campaigns in a tidy “bundle.” Bundlers are among the unintended consequences of a 1974 law Congress passed to limit individual donations to campaigns. Political candidates, facing increasingly costly races, turned to some of their top volunteer fundraisers for help. Presidential campaigns anoint the ones who are particularly effective with names such as Pioneers or Rangers.

When Democrats took control of Congress in 2007, among their first accomplishments was the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act. It requires that campaign committees disclose every six months all lobbyists who bundle $16,000 or more for them. The Center for Public Integrity has analyzed the little-noticed database of federal lobbyists’ bundling and compiled a list of Top 5 Lobbyist Bundlers. Four of them — perhaps a reflection of recent political tides — are Democrats.

Since those new disclosure rules went into effect in February 2009, only 96 lobbyists have been identified as bundlers in reports filed by just 63 political committees. The thousands of other registered federal lobbyists, assuming honest compliance, have not reached that $16,000 fundraising threshold for any federal campaign committee. These 96 lobbyists combined to bundle about $6 million in contributions to candidates, PACs, and party committees, an average of $62,500 each.

By far the top lobbyist bundler to date, with at least $641,950 in bundled cash, is former political “Boy Wonder” turned Austin-based lobbyist Ben Barnes, 72. Barnes, whose lofty bundling status was first noted by the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group in January, entered the Texas political scene by winning a state representative seat at the age of 21 and becoming state Speaker of the House in 1965, at the age of 26. After two-terms as lieutenant governor, Barnes was tarred by the “Sharpstown Scandal,” a major Texas state government bribery controversy, effectively ending his electoral career. But his website proudly claims that he is still “putting his stamp on the Democratic Party.” He’s certainly put his political money where his mouth is: between July and December of 2009, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) reported receiving a total of $898,150 in bundled donations. Of that total, Barnes raised $641,950 — more than 71 percent of the DCCC’s intake. Barnes told the Center that he has been raising money for Democrats for almost 40 years, and that he does so because he believes “in the principles of the Democratic Party.” He specifically cited a fundraiser at his home in Austin on Sept. 19, 2009, as the source of his bundled donations to the DCCC.

Prolific lobbyist Anthony T. “Tony” Podesta, 65, ranks second on the list with $394,800 in bundled donations. One of GQ’s 2009 “50 Most Powerful People in D.C.”, Podesta is wired into the Democratic establishment — his brother John served as Bill Clinton’s White House chief of staff and more recently acted as President Barack Obama’s transition team co-chair while running the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning DC-based think-tank. Tony Podesta personally donated at least $84,750 to Democratic campaigns and committees this cycle alone, including a total of $50,000 donated to the DCCC. Over the same period, he bundled $142,900 for the DCCC and $102,000 to its sister Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC). His wife, Heather, is a successful lobbyist in her own right and bundled another $25,000 to the DCCC and $79,750 to the DSCC respectively. Podesta also bundled $78,400 for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and $41,000 for Sen. Patty Murray. His numerous clients cover the gamut of major issues facing Congress, but Podesta has had an especially lucrative year lobbying on health reform — a recent Center investigation revealed Podesta’s firm had the fourth-largest number of clients concerned with the issue. Podesta’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The third biggest fundraiser-lobbyist: Brian L. Wolff, senior vice president of external affairs at the Edison Electric Institute. Wolff, who bundled at least $252,100 for the DCCC, is a former executive director and finance director for the campaign committee, and was also political director for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Now working for an industry association representing U.S. shareholder-owned electric companies, it might seem his employer’s goals would be in conflict with House Democrats, who back legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including increased regulation of electric utilities. But the group neither endorsed nor opposed the main climate change bill, which passed the House in June 2009, and it is actively working with senators to find a compromise it can support. Wolff told the Center that he would not be surprised to rank higher after last month’s bundling numbers are released. He is “not a pragmatic bundler” who raises money for his own political access, Wolff said, but a bundler supporting a House speaker who “is like a family member.” Wolff said all he receives in return for his efforts are additional requests for fundraising help.

In fourth, with at least $221,400 is Vincent A. Roberti Sr. A bundler for the DCCC, DSCC, and Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, Roberti is both chairman and CEO of Palisades Pictures, a Gotham-based company that finances print and advertising campaigns for independent films. He is also founding principal at Navigators Global, an international lobbying and strategic communications firm. In that role, he lobbied for United Parcel Service Inc. recently on the FAA Reauthorization Act, specifically for a provision ensuring the right of express carrier employees to unionize; rival FedEx Corp. calls that provision a “bailout” for UPS. UPS, a union operation, would no doubt like to see non-union FedEx face the same labor pressures. The House version of the bill contained the provision, with the support of the Democratic majority; the Senate version passed without it after Republicans threatened a filibuster. The bill awaits a resolution of this and other House-Senate differences. Roberti also lobbied on behalf of AT&T Inc. for the broadband Internet provisions in the 2009 stimulus bill and on behalf of Citigroup Inc. in support of the Troubled Asset Relief Program — both enacted with strong majorities of House and Senate Democrats, including Schumer. Roberti did not respond to a request for a comment.

The lone Republican bundler to crack the top five is Frederick “Tripp” Baird, III, a former aide to multiple GOP senators and a partner at Watts Consulting Group, the lobbying branch of J.C. Watts Companies — which is named for a former congressman and star Oklahoma Sooners quarterback. Baird has bundled $210,300 for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, and Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. He represents influential clients like AT&T and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, but also the controversial Bowl Championship Series (BCS), which runs the college football bowl games that crown a national champion each year. Baird told the Center he is “shocked” to be the top Republican on the list of bundlers but said he’s “not ashamed of bundling.” He said his recipients are “people I have relationships with, people I believe in.”

Combined, these five lobbyists raised at least $1,720,550 in just over a year.