WASHINGTON, October 3, 2005 — When lobbyist William Oldaker sits down to negotiate with a member of Congress, he brings years of experience working for the federal government to the table, as well as the legislative resources of his own firm. He also brings quite a bit of money.
As the treasurer of 23 political committees, groups that raise funds to elect or defeat politicians, Oldaker has signed off on more than $2 million in donations since 1998 to the parties and candidates he is paid to influence, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity. At the same time that these committees doled out millions to politicians, some 100 companies paid Oldaker's lobbying firms $14 million to influence some of the same lawmakers.
For example, in 2004 four committees that he managed donated a combined $30,000 to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member of the transportation appropriations subcommittee. In that same year, Oldaker lobbied Congress on transportation appropriations issues for at least five of his clients. Odaker did not return repeated calls from the Center.
Oldaker is just one of hundreds of Washington, D.C., lobbyists who play this dual role, influencing members of Congress while also controlling donations that finance their campaigns. Lobbyists have served as treasurers for at least 800 political action committees and 68 campaign committees in the past six years, according the Center's study. In that time these committees have spent more than $525 million to influence the political process. In other words, these lobbyist-led committees spent more money than President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry raised in combined contributions during the 2004 presidential campaign.
"That is truly a lot of money," said Frances Hill, the tax program director at the Campaign Legal Center and a professor of election law at the University of Miami law school. "I think it is all right for people to band together and hire a lobbyist in an expensive suit to represent their interests, but I don't think it is OK to use [campaign] money as the clincher," she said.
Although there are no restrictions on who can be a committee treasurer, Hill said she was "seriously concerned" that so many lobbyists are filling the position. According to federal election law, the treasurer is responsible for all of a committee's expenditures and is also responsible for monitoring contributions.
Meanwhile as these lobbyist-led PACs donate millions, their firms have raked in $3 billion from 10,610 companies and organizations between 1998 and 2004—constituting one quarter of all federal lobbying expenditures for that period. In addition, 557 companies that spent more than $3.5 billion lobbying employed PAC or campaign treasurers as in-house lobbyists.
Most PACs with lobbyist treasurers were actually formed by their clients. New York Stock Exchange lobbyist Cecile Srodes, for example, was the treasurer of two NYSE PACs in 2004. Under her management that year, the committees donated $11,000 to Rep. Michael Oxley, R-Ohio, while Srodes simultaneously lobbied on the "Broker Accountability through Enhanced Transparency Act," which Oxley co-sponsored.
Lobbying expert Bertram Levine said that appointing a lobbyist as the treasurer of a corporate PAC is a "very poor practice." He said that because corporate PACs raise money from the company's employees, they should be the ones designating where the money goes, not lobbyists.
"It buys access," said Levine, a professor of political science at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., and co-author of a book about lobbying. "And that is not something that should be taken lightly; the opportunity to make the argument is the opportunity to win the argument."
'How you buy influence'
Although Levine said that allowing lobbyists to run corporate PACs raises "red flags," he characterized the practice of having them run campaign committees and leadership PACs as the "most obvious conflict of interest." Campaign committees raise money for a candidate's election; leadership PACs are committees formed by politicians to fund other candidates' campaigns.
"Raising money is how you buy influence," Levine said. "There is a loophole here that needs to be closed or at least more closely monitored."
Since 1998, 79 members of Congress have appointed lobbyists as the treasurers of their campaign committees or leadership PACs. There are 39 sitting members of Congress who currently have lobbyists at the helm of such committees. Lobbyists have also been treasurers for major presidential contenders, including Al Gore's 2000 campaign.
For instance, Harold Ickes, a partner at Ickes & Enright Group, is the treasurer of New York Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton's campaign committee "Hillary Rodham Clinton For U.S. Senate Committee Inc." Ickes clients have included the insurance company Equitas Ltd. and Verizon Services Group. Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D- Ill., co-sponsor of the recently introduced lobbying reform act, the "Emanuel-Meehan bill" also appointed a lobbyist to oversee his campaign committee, "Friends of Rahm Emanuel." Emmanuel's committee raised more than $4 million under the watch of lobbyist William Singer, whose clients include Sara Lee Corp. and United Airlines.
But these lobbyist-led campaign committees are not limited to the Democratic side of the aisle. Lobbyist Timothy McKeever is the treasurer of Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens' campaign committee, "Stevens for Senate." McKeever said that he has worked on the committee since 1980, before he became a lobbyist.
During McKeever's last two election cycles as treasurer, the committee raised nearly $3 million to influence the political process. He insists, however, that his work as a fund-raiser has no impact on his role as a lobbyist.
"I really don't think there is a connection between the two (positions)," McKeever said. "I do relatively little lobbying work for the senator."
Still, in 2003, McKeever reported lobbying on a Senate appropriations bill rider authored by Stevens that would have eliminated funding for certain habitat protection programs in the North Pacific Ocean. The measure was supported by the commercial fishing industry, including Seattle-based Arctic Storm Management Group, one of McKeever's clients. Despite much opposition by environmentalists and other Republicans in Congress, Stevens attached the rider to the bill. In the end, the bill passed, but without the rider.
McKeever did not comment on the specifics of his lobbying, but said that his committee position does not give him any special advantages in attracting clients. "I don't believe they hire me because of it," McKeever said. "Whether (an advantage) is something they perceive, I don't know."
Among the lobbyists overseeing leadership PACs is the Republican political consultant Mark Valente. He serves as the treasurer of 15 PACs, nearly all of which are leadership PACs, including those of House Republicans Joe Wilson, S.C.; Mike Ferguson, N.J.; and Mike Rogers, Mich.
Valente, who heads his own lobbying firm Valente & Associates, said he does not believe any conflicts of interest result from heading the leadership PACs of several members of Congress while lobbying. Although at times the job requires fund-raising, Valente said that the majority of his tasks as treasurer involve filling out forms and keeping banking records.
"The members are looking for people they can trust, and we want to help our friends out," Valente said. "And they are already our friends."
Only a few of his clients donate to the PACs he oversees, Valente said, and not many of them have PACs that could make contributions. "Just as we encourage our clients to donate to like-minded members of Congress, we would not exclude the PACs," he said.
By the book
While lobbyists like William Oldaker and Mark Valente are connected to many PACs, neither of them hold the record for the most committees controlled by a registered lobbyist. That distinction belongs to political savant Barbara W. Bonfiglio.
During her tenure as a lobbyist from 1998 to 2001, Bonfiglio mastered the demanding jobs of both overseeing the finances of 31 political committees—more than half of which were campaign committees and leadership PACs—while lobbying for six companies at the D.C. law firm Williams & Jensen. In addition to running FEC-regulated committees, Bonfiglio was also the treasurer of five 527 organizations once connected to members of Congress, which were allowed to raise money without contribution limits.
Though balancing such a vast array of lobbying and campaign finance interests at one time may seem difficult, Bonfiglio could be considered an expert. She wrote the book on it—literally. The attorney is author of How to Cross the Potomac without Falling In, a guide to following the Lobbying Disclosure Act, Federal Election Commission regulations and House and Senate gift rules.