Rep. Reid J. Ribble, a first-term Republican from Wisconsin, was all smiles leaving the home of a Capitol Hill lobbyist for a fundraising party in the lawmaker's honor Tuesday evening.
He had reason to be pleased. Hosted by, among others, the political arm of the country's largest milk processor, Texas-based Dean Foods, the fundraising party no doubt contributed thousands of dollars to Mr. Ribble's campaign fund.
But the fundraising party also was held just two weeks after the Justice Department and the attorneys general for Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin announced a big legal settlement with Dean Foods. They had accused the company of serious antitrust violations that threatened to drive up milk prices for consumers across Wisconsin.
The company vowed to fight the charges, but agreed to settle and sell one of its plants in Wisconsin to avoid a long court battle, according to reports.
Mark Castel, senior farm analyst for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit industry watchdog group that has criticized Dean Foods, said the congressman's fundraising activities raise concerns. "It doesn't make us feel comfortable that when we approach him with an issue that a lobbyist has beaten us to him with a $1,000 check," Mr. Castel said.
But a spokesman for Mr. Ribble said the congressman's fundraiser doesn't give Dean Foods or any other contributor an advantage over members of the public in getting the lawmaker's attention on important issues.
"Agriculture is such an important economic factor in the 8th Congressional District that we regularly meet with entities of all shapes and sizes, from larger companies like Dean Foods to farmers working on 40 acres selling to local shops," said Ribble spokesman Brandon Moody.
"Regarding the fundraiser, it's pretty simple. Like most members of Congress, Congressman Ribble receives support from those who tend to agree with his values and vision for government," Mr. Moody said. "Congressman Ribble believes in a smaller, more efficient government that reduces spending and regulation and fosters an environment for business owners to create jobs."
Liliana Esposito, a spokeswoman for Dean Foods, said the company didn't lobby Mr. Ribble at the fundraiser and the subject of its recent Justice Department settlement did not come up.
"Those are unrelated issues," she said of the settlement.
"Like many companies, we work to educate members of Congress" on issues, she said.
Ms. Esposito said Dean Foods took part in the fundraiser because Mr. Ribble is a new member of Congress from a state that is key to the dairy industry, and he sits on a House subcommittee overseeing dairy issues.
The Ribble fundraiser was held in the Capitol Hill home of John Bode, who is registered to lobby for, among others, McDonald's, Kraft Foods and the National Meat Association.
The invitation for the Ribble fundraiser, obtained by the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation, was billed as "A Taste of Green Bay Reception" in Mr. Ribble's honor. It listed Mr. Bode as a host along with political action committees for Dean Foods, the American Beverage Association and the International Dairy Foods Association.
The suggested contributions for attendees ranged from $500 to $2,000, with checks payable to Mr. Ribble's congressional campaign.
Mr. Ribble is hardly the only lawmaker to benefit from Dean Foods' political largesse. The Dean Foods political action committee spent more than $700,000 during the 2010 election cycle, giving generously to Democrats and Republicans alike, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The PAC gave $30,000 each to the Democratic and Republican fundraising arms for both the House and Senate.
In addition, Dean Foods spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to influence lawmakers and federal agencies last year, according to Senate lobbying records.
The company came under scrutiny from federal and state regulators last year challenging its purchase of a milk plant in Wisconsin. Authorities said it created a monopoly, leaving many customers and school districts with one supplier.
"We are committed to protecting consumers by ensuring vigorous competition among milk producers," Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican, said after the settlement late last month.
Rep. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat, said the settlement would "help break a monopoly that has been bankrupting Wisconsin dairy farmers." A fellow Democrat, Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, called the settlement "welcome news for Wisconsin consumers."
Mr. Moody, the Ribble spokesman, called the settlement "fairly straightforward" and noted that "these types of merger and acquisition issues arise and are managed fairly regularly."
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