Friday, February 22, 2008

Sen. Barack Obama, who has refused donations from federal lobbyists and paints his Democratic presidential rival as a Washington insider for accepting their contributions, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from partners at dozens of firms that lobbied Congress in 2007.

The partners — who often share in a law firm’s overall profits — gave at least $214,000 to the Obama campaign from October through December, according to a review of Federal Election Commission records and lobbying-disclosure reports with the Senate.

Partners at the Chicago-based law firm of Kirkland Ellis LLP, which has a lobbying arm in Washington, gave Mr. Obama more than $70,000 in contributions last year. The firm represented a pharmaceuticals company and the Futures Industry Association.

Mr. Obama also has accepted tens of thousands from partners Covington & Burling, which was paid nearly a half-million dollars last year to lobby for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, or PhRMA. None of the donations came from three partners at the firm who worked as PhRMA lobbyists.

As a rule, the Obama campaign says it won’t accept donations from PhRMA, current federally registered lobbyists, or political action committees. It does accept contributions from state lobbyists, past federal lobbyists and employees of firms that lobby Congress.

“He’s kind of saying, ‘Look, I want to distance myself from the current system,’ but he’s not saying he’s not going to take any money from anyone who employs lobbyists,” said Steven Weissman, associate director of the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.

“That was a sincere gesture but it’s a gesture, it’s not a significant subtraction from his money,” he said. “Lobbyists are only a very small part of the overall campaign money, but the ones who employ these people are more important. Nobody is willing to refuse their money.”

A campaign spokesman said Mr. Obama has done more than any other candidate to push for lobbying reforms and stronger ethics, and pointed out their opponent Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s penchant for accepting lobbyist largess.

“It’s not a perfect solution to the problem but it does reaffirm a commitment that isn’t shared by Senator Clinton, who’s taken more money [from lobbyists] than any other candidate,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said of Mr. Obama’s policy to turn down money from current federal lobbyists.

A spokesman for the Clinton campaign said Mr. Obama’s policy lacks substance.

“When Senator Obama is out on the stump, he works hard to give the impression that he has no relationship with K Street or the special interests,” Clinton spokesman Phil Singer said yesterday. “A little research into his record, however, makes it quite clear that his claims are really just words.”

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) has found that Mrs. Clinton has accepted more than $750,000 from lobbyists so far during the presidential campaign, while Mr. Obama took more than $85,000.

Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the center, said the group’s figures include donations from family members of federal lobbyists as well as contributions from state and municipal lobbyists. He also said the Obama campaign has a good track record of returning money from current federal lobbyists once they learn of the contributions.

“The money goes right back out the door,” he said.

The records show that partners at Covington & Burling LLP had given the Obama campaign more than $25,000 in contributions last year, including $10,650 since October.

Covington & Burling lawyer Eric Holder, a former top deputy in the Justice Department and U.S. attorney for the District, gave $4,600 to Mr. Obama. An adviser for the campaign, he was registered as a lobbyist in 2003 but does not currently lobby, records show.

Partners at Sullivan & Cromwell, which last year earned $120,000 in lobbying fees from Goldman Sachs & Co., gave more than $40,000.

Despite the frequent talk of lobbying on the campaign trail, contributions from lobbyists are a small fraction of what employees in the banking and legal sectors donate.

Through September last year, employees of lobbying firms gave roughly $2.1 million to presidential candidates, compared with nearly $39 million from lawyers and $24 million from employees in the securities and banking industries, according an analysis by the CRP.

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