- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain are relying on Washington insiders and former lobbyists to scrutinize possible vice presidential candidates, even as they campaign against lobbyists as a corrosive force in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, on Tuesday derided as a “game” inquiries into his decision to name former Fannie Mae chief executive James A. Johnson to lead his search for a running mate.

Mr. Johnson, a former lobbyist, is drawing scrutiny over ties to subprime-mortgage lender Countrywide Financial Corp., which Mr. Obama has railed against on the campaign trail.

“I would have to hire the vetter to vet the vetters,” the Illinois Democrat told reporters at a news conference in St. Louis. “I mean, at some point, we just asked people to do their assignments.”

Mr. McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee, has reached out to Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr., White House counsel in the Reagan administration from 1987 to 1989, to head his search.

Mr. Culvahouse is chairman of O’Melveny & Myers LLP, which has a powerful Washington lobbying office. A former lobbyist, he has represented Lockheed Martin, Fannie Mae and British Steel, according to Senate and Justice Department filings.

The running mate-search picks are providing fodder for both campaigns, as the candidates are being forced to defend their reliance on the same sort of Washington insiders they have crusaded against for months.

McCain campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds on Tuesday said Mr. Johnson’s appointment by Mr. Obama reflected “a growing presence of ties to the very industries that he speaks out against on the campaign trail.”

“There’s no greater hypocrisy,” he said.

But Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said the McCain campaign “is run and paid for by Washington lobbyists,” adding that Mr. Culvahouse’s firm had represented disgraced Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, the company’s former CEO convicted in 2006 of multiple federal felony charges relating to Enron’s financial collapse.

Despite all the campaign talk against lobbyists, political experts say it’s probably unrealistic for the campaigns to truly rid themselves of people with lobbying ties.

“They need to have some ability to run an effective campaign and to raise money, and to do that takes the kind of connections and interconnections that lobbyists have,” said Robert Oldendick, a professor of political science at the University of South Carolina.

“If a campaign was truly free of those kinds of connections, they probably couldn’t be very effective,” he said. “Charges are going to fly back and forth, but in the end, I think it’s going to be a wash.”

Daron Shaw, an associate professor of government at the University of Texas and a strategist for President Bush in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, said both candidates need to weigh the benefit of appointing a consultant against the possible political flap if that person once worked as a lobbyist.

“People who are going to be players in either campaign are probably going to have worked for other partisan or special interests before. That’s the way politics operate,” Mr. Shaw said.

Justice Department records show Mr. Johnson, chief executive of mortgage giant Fannie Mae from 1991 to 1998, also registered as an agent for Egypt in 1988 to lobby U.S. officials on the country’s military-sales debt.

Registration papers show Mr. Johnson contracted as a part-time lobbyist for Shearson Lehman Hutton Inc., though records don’t indicate that he received any compensation for the assignment.

Criticism of Mr. Johnson’s appointment arose after the Wall Street Journal on Saturday reported that he had received discounted mortgage loans from Countrywide. Mr. McCain later told Fox News that Mr. Johnson’s appointment to lead the vice presidential search suggested “a bit of a contradiction” between Mr. Obama’s words and actions on the campaign trail.

Mr. Culvahouse holds his own Fannie Mae ties, Senate lobbying records show. He lobbied for the mortgage giant as recently as 2004. He also lobbied for Lockheed Martin for the “timely development” of a more cost effective U.S. commercial space transportation industry in 1999.

In the 1980s, Mr. Culvahouse also worked as an agent for British Steel, advising the company on trade issues before Congress, the White House and various federal agencies, according to Justice Department records.

Another member of the three-person Obama vice presidential search committee, former Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. lobbied for Large Scale Biology Corp., a Maryland biotechnology company, and telecommunications company Global Crossing in 2002 and 2003.

Mr. Obama defended the appointments of Mr. Holder and Mr. Johnson on Tuesday.

“Jim Johnson has a very discrete task, as does Eric Holder, and that is simply to gather up information about potential vice presidential candidates,” he told reporters. “They’re performing that job well. It’s a volunteer, unpaid position.

“And they’re giving me information, and I will then exercise judgement in terms of who I want to select as a vice presidential candidate,” he said. “So these aren’t folks who are working for me, they’re not people who I have assigned to a particular job in a future administration.”

The comments drew immediate criticism from the Republican National Committee, which called Mr. Obama’s comments “totally inconsistent with his rhetoric, but wholly consistent with his own record.”

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