- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

The class of 41 freshman House Democrats has selected a registered lobbyist to form its political action committee, in what ethics watchdogs and Republicans are calling a contradiction of their promise to end a “culture of corruption” in Washington.

The custodian of the Democratic Freshmen PAC is William C. Oldaker, 65, whose most-recent lobbying clients include the oil industry, the tobacco lobby, pharmaceutical industries and American Indian gambling interests. Mr. Oldaker also has been removed from several Democratic PACs over conflict-of-interest concerns.

According to a 2005 report by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), “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.”

CPI has publicly referred to Mr. Oldaker as a “rainmaker,” for his ability to successfully represent his clients’ interests before congressional lawmakers. Many prominent lawmakers, and especially those seeking higher office, form PACs to donate money to other candidates or causes.

“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,” the CPI report reads. “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.”

However, because Mr. Oldaker serves as the Democratic Freshmen PAC’s custodian and not its treasurer, he is not directly responsible for fundraising efforts. According to Federal Election Commission forms, a PAC custodian typically houses a PAC’s financial records. A records search shows that the law firm he works for, Oldaker, Biden & Belair LLC, and the Democratic Freshmen PAC share the same Northwest Washington address.

Nonetheless, some campaign-finance watchdogs say the connection shows the new Democratic majority is not pursuing ethics reform as forcefully as promised on the campaign trail.

“Isn’t the point to avoid even the appearance of impropriety?” said Naomi Seligman Steiner of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, when asked about Mr. Oldaker’s involvement in the PAC. “We’re not any more comfortable with it this year than we were last year.”

Some House Democrats have expressed frustration that the lobbying and ethics reform measures touted during the 2006 election have been scaled back to some degree in recent weeks. While most watchdog groups say any reform will be an improvement over the status quo, not all are happy with the changes.

“From Day One, the freshman PAC has operated in accordance with all aspects of the law,” said Rep. Mike Thompson, co-chairman of the Democratic Freshmen PAC, said when asked about Mr. Oldaker’s involvement.

Mr. Oldaker said his involvement has been limited to questions of election law and other basic “operational aspects.”

He did acknowledge that some people have objected to having a registered lobbyist simultaneously serving as a PAC fundraiser but said “I’m very supportive of the actions the House and Senate have taken” so far in the pursuit of ethics and lobbying reform.

National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) spokesman Ken Spain said that “it didn’t take this group of freshmen Democrats long to figure out how to play the Washington game of special interest politics.”

“It appears that fighting corruption in Congress was nothing more than a campaign slogan to newly elected Democrats,” he said.

The PAC’s treasurer, James Smith, a former fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and also a registered lobbyist in Washington for the past two decades, dismissed the NRCC’s criticism and said he hasn’t spoken to Mr. Oldaker “in months.”

“It’s absurd for the NRCC to criticize me for fundraising for Democrats,” he said. “That’s what they do for their party full time.”

Mr. Smith says Mr. Oldaker, a former FEC lawyer, was brought in to file papers and help “get the PAC up and running.”

FEC guidelines do not require the Democratic Freshmen PAC to disclose their fundraising numbers until June. However, Mr. Smith tells The Washington Times that the PAC has held “a number of” fundraisers and distributed money to freshman lawmakers running for re-election in 2008.

Mr. Oldaker has previously overseen the leadership PACs of high-ranking Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Max Baucus of Montana.

However, Mr. Kennedy and Sen. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota both removed Mr. Oldaker, after the CPI report was published. Shortly thereafter, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas also removed Mr. Oldaker from his position as treasurer of her PAC.

No staff members for the three senators returned calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Mr. Oldaker stepped down as treasurer of Mr. Reid’s leadership PAC in early 2006, because the Nevada Democrat wanted to avoid having a registered lobbyist simultaneously serving in the capacity as his PAC treasurer. However, Mr. Oldaker remains an unpaid, “trusted adviser” to the PAC, according to Mr. Reid’s office.

Mrs. Lincoln, who hired Mr. Oldaker as treasurer in 2001, received contributions to her 2004 re-election campaign from the Edison Electric Institute, Equifax, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the New York Stock Exchange, the Nuclear Energy Institute, Pfizer and SBC Communications, according to public finance records.

In addition, Sen. Mark Pryor, Arkansas Democrat, hired Mr. Oldaker in 2003 and has received contributions from Altria, Florida Power & Light, the Nuclear Energy Institute and SBC Communications.

Mr. Oldaker has also represented several universities and hospitals. He was paid $60,000 by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians in the first half of 2006, according to public lobbying records. In 2002, Mr. Oldaker’s firm was paid $80,000 by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to work on minimum-wage legislation in contacts with both the Senate and House.

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