Among Top Obama Fundraisers, Influence Seekers Abound

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U.S. President Barack Obama greets people after addressing a crowd at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, at an event dubbed the "Obama Victory Fund 2012 Kickoff Reception," on June 13, 2011 in Miami, Florida.

Washington, D.C.

Barack Obama set a record last week when his campaign announced a second-quarter fund-raising haul of $86 million, but his aides focused on another milestone: “We didn’t accept one single dollar from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs, a commitment no other presidential campaign has made,” boasted campaign manager Jim Messina.

But those bragging rights aren’t everything they seem. A list of Obama’s own top fundraisers features a number of people involved in the business of influencing government, including the head of a lobbying and public relations firm, the corporate executive who oversees Comcast’s lobbying efforts and the chairwoman of pharmaceutical giant Pfizer’s political action committee, among others.

Perhaps the most prominent example is Michael Kempner, the president and chief executive officer of MWW Group, a public relations firm that billed more than $4 million in federal lobbying in 2010. Though Kempner is not registered as a lobbyist, he is an operating partner in the private equity firm Pegasus Capital Advisors, which owns MWW’s biggest lobbying client, iGPS, a company that produces plastic shipping pallets. In 2010, iGPS spent nearly $1 million lobbying Congress, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mostly on new rules that would restrict the use of a fire-retardant chemical that iGPS uses in its pallets.

Kempner, a longtime Democratic fundraiser and liberal activist who could not be reached for comment, has been an active access broker for the Democratic party. He offered to host a June 2010 Democratic fundraiser in New York that promised donors the chance to talk to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson about “about issues of concern to you,” according to the invitation. (The event was canceled at the last minute after Republicans raised concerns in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill crisis.) A few months later, according to public records, iGPS officials met with Steve Owens, the assistant administrator in the office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention at the EPA to discuss decabromine, the controversial fire retardant.

Kempner’s fund-raising efforts—he has pledged to raise more than $500,000 for Obama’s re-election effort–have made him a frequent visitor to the White House, where he has been appointed to the Council on Community Solutions. He has also been invited to Christmas celebrations, a state dinner with Mexican President Felipe Calderón and a meeting in the private presidential residence, according to White House visitor records. Shortly before the 2010 election, just weeks after iGPS representatives met with the EPA official, Obama traveled to Kempner’s Cresskill, N.J., home for a fundraiser, where the president thanked Kempner and his wife “for being such incredible friends.”

Kempner is by no means the only Obama fundraiser with one foot in the government relations business. Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, who oversees his company’s lobbying operation, has also pledged, with his wife Rhonda, to raise more than $500,000 for the President. In 2010, the operation Cohen oversees at Comcast spent more than $19 million on lobbyists, hiring 30 outside firms in addition to an in-house team of eight. With executives seeking regulatory approval for Comcast’s purchase of NBC-Universal, Comcast employees also increased their donations to candidates from both parties to a total of $2,551,879 in the 2010 cycle, up 30% over the $1.96 million given in the 2008 cycle.

Drug giant Pfizer’s top government relations executive, Sally Susman, has pledged to raise between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama’s re-election effort. She oversees a government relations operation that spent more than $26 million on lobbyists in 2009 at the height of the health care reform debate and more than $15 million in 2010. Kenneth Jarin, who plans to raise between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama, is the the co-partner in charge of government relations at Ballard Spahr, which represented telecom company LightSquared before the Department of Transportation in 2011. Among the registered lobbyists working on that account: Former Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell, a close ally of the White House who formally served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Another Pennsylvania attorney, Mark Alderman of Cozen O’Conner, has also pledged to raise between $200,000 and $500,000 for Obama. Though he is also not registered to lobby, Alderman “concentrates his practice on business matters with an emphasis on issues that involve government relations, including matters involving federal public strategies,” according to his company biography. In 2010, Alderman’s firm billed more than $1 million in federal lobbying.

It is impossible to tell from public records whether any of Obama’s donors used the access they gained from making contributions to press their company’s or client’s interests. Under current law, a person can avoid officially registering as a lobbyist by only making one lobbying contact with a government official in a given reporting period, or by spending less than 20% of the time spent working with a client on “lobbying activities.” In practice, that means that officials in the highest levels of Obama’s fund-raising apparatus could occasionally raise professional concerns without triggering the need for a lobbying registration.

The Obama campaign, meanwhile, has continued to emphasize the fact that its no-registered-lobbyist policy still goes much further than anything Republican candidates have promised to do. Public filings recently revealed, for instance, that a fundraiser for Mitt Romney, T. Martin Fiorentino Jr., lobbied on behalf of Lender Processing Services, a company that has been reprimanded by the government for unsound loan servicing practices, the Boston Globe reported on Tuesday.

“While the Republican candidates have no objection to raising money from special interest PACs and Washington lobbyists, our campaign rejects them,” said Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for the Obama campaign. “Federal lobbyists are paid specifically to influence the federal government and as a longtime advocate for reducing the undue influence special interests have over the policy-making process the President does not accept their contributions.”

While LaBolt’s last statement is true, it is also true that several of Obama’s biggest fundraisers are paid to influence the federal government. Their contributions are accepted, however, as long as they hire other people to make most of the person-to-person contacts with federal officials.

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