If there was any doubt about whether Tony and Heather Podesta qualify as a Washington power couple, it can now be erased.
The couple, already known as top-tier Democratic donors and lobbyists, appears back-to-back at the top of the FEC’s lobbyist bundler database. Both Podestas bundled over $320,000 each in just the first six months of this year, blowing away the nearest competitor and setting themselves up to make an early impact in what is shaping up to be the most expensive political cycle in American history.
When told that she had placed second to another Podesta, Heather Podesta laughed and said, “I think I need to go to work. I never like to play second to my husband.”
Her spouse deadpanned, “The tortoise always beats the hare.”
According to an iWatch News analysis, since the beginning of this year 30 lobbyists or lobbying entities have bundled a little over $2 million to 14 political entities, including party committees and political candidates of all kinds.
To outside watchdogs, few things are as controversial as the role of big money bundlers and big money lobbyists. Lobbyists bundling large amounts of cash “raises the specter of this quid pro quo that is so disturbing,” says Mary Boyle, vice president of communications for Common Cause. She describes bundlers as the “power brokers” of the regulated financial system, who do a valuable service for candidates that in return “buys them access, influence and, certainly, prestige within the campaign.”
Here are the Top 5 lobbyist bundlers to date:
*The largest bundler so far is Anthony T. Podesta, with just under $350,000 bundled to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and the campaign of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. It should be no surprise Podesta’s money has gone exclusively to Democrats. 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 Obama’s transition team co-chair while running the left-leaning Center for American Progress. Anthony’s Podesta Group is one of the most powerful lobbying entities in DC, with clients ranging from the American Meat Institute to Duke Energy to Sallie Mae. Since the start of the year, his firm has brought in at least $13.7 million in contracts.
Podesta told iWatch News that the $350,000 total seemed low to him, and said he intended to continue bundling through the rest of the cycle with no set goal in mind. When asked whether he was surprised by being the top bundler lobbyist in the database, Podesta replied, “No surprises ever.”
*In second place is Heather Podesta, Anthony’s wife and a powerful lobbyist in her own right. Like her husband, her bundled donations have gone exclusively to Democrats — over $322,000 went to the DCCC and DSCC. An art collector and board member for several collections, Heather Podesta is also the owner of her own successful lobbying firm that works for a broad range of clients, including the American Beverage Association, Marathon Oil and Prudential Financial. Heather Podesta + Partners has brought in at least $3.3 million in contracts since January.
“Tony and I started this cycle immediately, and wanted to not wait until 2012 to engage,” she said. “So we really jump started our fundraising early this cycle.”
Podesta said she was not aware previously of the FEC database, which is put together by filings from the recipients of the funds. However, she said she supported the idea of more transparency. “Do I think transparency is good? Yes. Do I think it should be applied to everyone? Absolutely,” she said, adding that more transparency on the whole process, including the secretive “Super PACs,” would be a good thing. (Podesta added that she has not donated to the Super PACs.)
*Patrick J. Durkin, managing director of the financial firm Barclays Capital, is the top Republican donor on the list. His $167,800 was exclusively bundled for the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney, joining several other lobbyists who combined for more than half a million dollars to the former governor of Massachusetts. Durkin, a long-time financial executive, has lobbied for Barclays on financial issues, including the Dodd-Frank reform bill, the “American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act” and changes to the tax code. The company has spent over $2.2 million on lobbying since the start of the year.
Durkin declined to comment for the story. Instead, Barclays issued a statement saying “Barclays supports the rights of its employees to engage in public and volunteer service in their personal time. Mr. Durkin’s engagement is consistent with Barclays policy.” It’s not Durkin’s first go around as a bundler — he bundled big money for President W. Bush in both 2000 and 2004, and for John McCain in 2008.
*The fourth largest bundler lobbyist is T. Martin Fiorentino Jr., president of the Fiorentino Group. A Florida native, Fiorentino raised $102,900 for Romney’s campaign and $41,200 for the Senate run of Republican Mike Haridopolos, who has since ended his campaign. Fiorentino, who did not back Romney in the 2008 primary, is no stranger to bundling — he raised over $1 million as the Florida Finance Co-Chair for John McCain and rose to the levels of “Pioneer” and “Ranger” in the two campaigns of George W. Bush. Although Fiorentino has not lobbied on anything directly so far in 2011, he confirmed he is still a registered federal lobbyist. He has previously lobbied on behalf of Florida State College and Physician Sales and Service; both remain clients of his firm, The Fiorentino Group, which raised $70,000 in federal lobbying contracts in 2011. Fiorentino has come under fire in recent weeks for his firm’s work on behalf of a foreclosure company that was reprimanded in April by the federal government for “unsound practices.”
Fiorentino said he has been personal friends with Haridopolos for over a decade, and he has been raising money for presidential candidates since 1988. “In the case of Gov. Romney, all the money I raised was from friends, not corporations or clients and with Mr. Haridopolos, almost all was from friends,” he said. Aside from the personal connection, Fiorentino said he agrees with them on the issues. “I support their views of less government, less taxes and more freedom.” He added that he would not be asking for his money back from Haridopolos.
Fiorentino expressed surprise at appearing so high on the list, but said he has no problem with his name being disclosed. “I believe that transparency is important.”
*The fifth slot on the list goes to Michael Graham, senior vice president of government and public affairs with the American Dental Association. A commander in the Navy Reserve with over 30 years of government affairs experience, Graham has bundled $130,000 for the National Republican Senatorial Committee so far this year. On behalf of the ADA, which has spent at least $1.2 million on federal lobbying this year, Graham lobbied Congress on issues like providing flexible spending accounts to members of the military, various bills aimed at repealing or gutting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and a variety of medical and dental issues.
Graham said the money he bundled came from an ADA event held with various health care related PACs, rather than personal bundling. His name appeared on the invitation. “ADA is proud of our support for folks who support dental issues,” he said, adding that the association gives to both Republicans and Democrats every cycle. The ADA’s records show that the amount raised was only $110,000; they could not account for the extra $20,000 listed by the NRSC.
Although not an individual, the civic action committee of DC legal powerhouse Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld is worth noting. The firm’s political arm bundled over $163,000 to the DCCC, DSCC and the NRSC, bipartisan giving in line with its role as a major player on Capitol Hill. Of that total, $122,500 went to the NRSC, with the remainder split almost evenly among the two Democratic groups. Among its clients in 2011 are AT&T, Bain Capital, Johnson & Johnson and Shell Oil. The firm, which has brought in more than $17.7 million in federal contracts through the first half of 2011, declined to comment for this piece.
Only two presidential contenders appeared in the database — Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. The Obama team has a longstanding policy of not accepting funds from active lobbyists, and so was not featured in the FEC’s database; however, several Obama bundlers identified by the campaign have previously lobbied. All together, they chipped in more than $1.3 million for the president as part of the large financial haul the Obama bundling team has already delivered.
While the Obama campaign disclosed its full list of bundlers, none of the GOP candidates have offered up a list. The FEC lobbyist bundlers database contains the only bundler names any of the campaigns are legally required to disclose. That’s a concern for Common Cause’s Boyle. “These are typically influential people who collect a lot of money for these candidates,” she says, “and the public has a right to know the names of the people who are collecting these large chunks of money.“
The FEC’s database is relatively new, having been signed into law in 2007 as part of the reform package pushed by Congressional Democrats. The FEC, hobbled by the lack of a quorum for most of 2008, did not put the new disclosure rules into effect until February 2009. The regulations created a system in which a political committee must identify and report any bundlers that are registered lobbyists who raised more than $16,000 per half-year period. The database of these bundlers is hosted by the FEC on its website.