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Adviser for VP search resigns

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama, who has lambasted runaway corporate salaries on the presidential campaign trail, accepted the resignation Wednesday of a prominent adviser who has had some big Wall Street paydays of his own lately.

Obama adviser Jim Johnson, who ran the Democrat's vice presidential search team until his surprise resignation, has earned six-figure stock and compensation deals while sitting on boards of several publicly traded companies over the past year, according to Security and Exchange Commission (SEC) filings.

The resignation was announced by the Obama campaign amid increasing criticism that Mr. Johnson received discounted mortgage loans from subprime lender Countrywide Financial Corp., a company Mr. Obama has railed against on the campaign trail.

"Jim did not want to distract in any way from the very important task of gathering information about my vice presidential nominee, so he has made a decision to step aside that I accept," Mr. Obama said in a statement.

"We have a very good selection process under way, and I am confident that it will produce a number of highly qualified candidates for me to choose from in the weeks ahead. I remain grateful to Jim for his service and his efforts in this process."

A Democratic adviser who vetted vice presidential candidates for Sen. John Kerry's presidential run in 2004, Mr. Johnson's corporate dealings recently placed him in the cross hairs of the AFL-CIO. Last year, the union singled out Mr. Johnson and three other directors at Target Corp. over "possible conflicts on interest" over ties to pharmaceutical and health insurance industries.

In a letter to Target citing $115 million in possible retirement costs for the company, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka wrote that he was concerned about a conflict between Mr. Johnson's directorship at Target and his role on the board at Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group Inc., a health plan.

UnitedHealth came under federal scrutiny over a stock-option scandal at a time when Mr. Johnson served on the company's compensation committee.

E-mail and phone messages left with Mr. Johnson's lawyer were not returned.

The AFL-CIO previously had criticized Mr. Johnson's role on the compensation committees of several public companies, according to public reports.

Mr. Johnson has served on the board of KB Home, a home construction company, along with longtime Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton supporter Ron Burkle.

Other directorships included positions on the corporate boards of United Health, which paid him $334,413; Target, $332,925; Temple Inland, $349,587; and Goldman Sachs, where he received $695,569 in total compensation in fiscal 2007, according to SEC filings.

Following Mr. Obama's announcement, the Republican National Committee immediately turned its sights on Eric H. Holder Jr., another member of the Obama vice-presidential search committee. A former deputy attorney general, Mr. Holder came under Republican fire for his role in the pardon of billionaire Marc Rich in the last days of the Clinton White House.

Now a private lawyer, he lobbied in 2002 and 2003 for Large Scale Biology Corp., a Maryland biotechnology company, and telecommunications company Global Crossing.

"If Barack Obama is concerned his campaign´s ties to special interests are distracting from his VP search and message, why is Eric Holder still on his search committee?" said RNC spokesman Alex Conant.

Mr. Conant also raised questions about Steve Farber, a registered lobbyist and a big fundraiser for the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Mr. Obama and the Democratic National Committee have pledged not to accept donations from federal lobbyists.

The nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute earlier this month found that Mr. Farber and convention fundraisers from both parties are soliciting big contributions from corporate special interests. Those sorts of donations aren't permitted in the presidential campaigns.

"Why is registered federal lobbyist Steve Farber leading the convention for Obama´s supposedly 'lobbyist-free´ campaign? Obama´s hypocritical attacks show he can´t stand up to his own standard - and that he just isn´t ready to make change," Mr. Conant said.

But Obama campaign spokesman Tommy Vietor charged back Wednesday that Sen. John McCain's campaign took 15 months to rid lobbyists from its staff because of a "perception problem".

He also noted that Arthur B. Culvahouse, who is heading Mr. McCain's vice-presidential search, chairs the same law firm that represented disgraced former Enron chief executive Jeffrey Skilling.

"It's too bad their campaign is still rife with lobbyist influence and doesn't see a similar perception problem with the man currently running their own vice-presidential selection process, a prominent D.C. lobbyist whose firm has represented Exxon and a top Enron executive ..." he said.

Mr. Culvahouse is not currently a lobbyist, but was registered to lobby in 2004 for Fannie Mae, where Mr. Johnson served as chief executive in the 1990s.

Mr. Vietor also said former Hewlett Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina, a top economic adviser in the McCain campaign, "presided over thousands of layoffs at Hewlett Packard while receiving a $21 million severance package and $650,000 in mortgage assistance."

Earlier Wednesday, DNC Chairman Howard Dean called criticism of Mr. Johnson "nuts," calling it a "Republican planted story."

"Jim Johnson doesn't work for the campaign, he doesn't get paid, he's a volunteer," he told reporters at gathering hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

*Donald Lambro contributed to this article.