DENVER | Under Sen. Barack Obama’s self-imposed ban on accepting money from federal lobbyists, Michael Dino isn’t allowed to give a dime to the Democrat’s presidential campaign. Neither could Steve Farber.
But for the better part of two years, the two men have been raising tens of millions of dollars from major corporations to finance this week’s launch of Mr. Obama’s presidential bid.
Mr. Dino, a registered federal lobbyist, and Mr. Farber, who was a lobbyist until last month, are two of the top officials for the Host Committee of the Democratic National Convention, which pays for many of the expenses for festivities here. Mr. Dino is its chief executive, and Mr. Farber is the co-chairman.
Campaign-finance watchdogs are troubled by the arrangement, which they say clashes with Mr. Obama’s anti-lobbyist campaign rhetoric.
The lobbying of Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son, Hunter, is also drawing scrutiny as Republicans target his work. Hunter Biden, 38, is a longtime federal lobbyist for a variety of interests, including the Jesuit university located in his father’s hometown, Scranton, Pa.
According to federal disclosures, Hunter Biden has been earning about $80,000 a year since 2006 to lobby for the University of Scranton.
To be sure, watchdogs say they’re equally troubled by the lobbying by top officials at both the Democratic and Republican committees. Like Mr. Obama, Sen. John McCain also has railed against the influence that lobbyists and their money have in Washington, and has barred lobbyists from his campaign staff.
“It undermines the message that both candidates have been making on the campaign trail,” said Craig Holman, legislative representative for Public Citizen, an advocacy group. “When it comes to the campaign finance, both conventions are one big gaping loophole.”
Aides to Mr. Obama say he wants to change how conventions are funded in the future, but did not have time this year to insist on those changes because of the long primary, in which he narrowly beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
“Barack Obama is committed to reforming our political system and getting the special interests out of politics. He has changed the way presidential campaigns are funded and made significant changes at the DNC. He also expressed a desire to significantly change the way conventions are funded in the future should he be elected president,” said Obama campaign spokesman Nick Shapiro.
“Obviously due to the very late end to the primary season, we weren’t able to make changes to this year’s convention. This late primary also impacted the host committee’s ability to raise funds,” he said. “We have been supportive of the host committee’s work to fund the convention and have encouraged those who support us to support their efforts.”
Phone calls to the committee Sunday were referred to a spokesman, Chris Lopez. He said officials have been raising money for the host committee well before Mr. Obama beat Mrs. Clinton for the nomination.
“We’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan committee, and that’s just the simple answer,” Mr. Lopez said. “The host committee follows all the rules.”
Mr. Farber, the committee’s chief fundraiser, is a founding partner at one of Washington’s biggest lobbying firms, Brownstein Farber Hyatt Schreck LLP, and is a major Democratic donor. Among some of his lobbying clients in recent years is the National Association of Home Builders, which also is contributing to the host committees for both conventions.
On July 21, the lobbying firm filed papers with the U.S. Senate dropping Mr. Farber as a lobbyist for the home builder’s association and United Airlines, his only two clients so far this year, according to Senate filings.
Meanwhile, Mr. Obama’s running mate, Mr. Biden, has close lobbying ties as well.
The Washington Times reported Sunday that the senator from Delaware, a candidate in the Democratic primary race who dropped out after a poor showing, has accepted more than $200,000 from the lobbying industry this year. In addition, Hunter Biden, this year alone has lobbied for 10 clients, including biotech companies Pulmatrix Inc. and Achaogen Inc.
Campaign-finance groups say lobbyists aren’t likely to stay out of Denver this week, even though Mr. Obama has railed against them on the campaign trail.
“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” he has said on the campaign trail.
But watchdogs say they expect corporate lobbyists to get a special level of access this week at many of the invitation-only events throughout Denver sponsored by corporations.
Nancy Watzman, director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation’s “Party Time” project, which tracks spending at the conventions, said the private events give lobbyists and corporate officials a chance to “rub shoulders” with politicians, while most other members of the public have to write letters or make phone calls to draw lawmakers’ attention to important issues.
Such access is made possible for many corporations with lobbying interests in Washington through big contributions to the host committees for the Republican and Democratic conventions.
Host committees are exempt from strict federal rules banning unlimited “soft money” contributions from corporations and unions to political parties. The Federal Election Commission has said the nonprofit host organizations are formed primarily to promote the host city, not politics.
But a study by the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute raises serious questions about that conclusion by reviewing just who is in charge at both host committees. The group concluded that host committee fundraising staffs are “reflections of their partisan sponsors.”
“Basically, Republican elected officials, their financiers and party operatives are asking for money to fund the Republican convention while Democratic ones are doing the same thing for the Democratic convention,” the study concluded.
“Furthermore, when these Colorado Democrats and Minnesota Republicans ‘make the ask,’ their undeniable civic boosterism frequently is accompanied by offers of special access to elected officials, national party leaders and other party influentials.”
Mr. Dino, aside from his lobbying job, served as an adviser to the 2006 campaign for Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. The committee’s chief financial officer, Melissa Koenigsberg, previously worked as finance director for Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat.
Meantime, the host committee for the Republican convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul is run by Kara Ahern, who has worked as an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney. The committee’s chief executive, Jeff Larsen, works at a telemarketing firms that has done millions of dollars in business with the Republican National Committee, according to the report.
Jim McElhatton is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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