The Influence Industry: In the Congressional Record, praise for campaign donors

April 13, 2011

All the proceedings of Congress are dutifully recorded by civil servants and printed thousands of times in bound volumes of the Congressional Record. As it turns out, so is a lot of flattery of campaign donors.

On April 1, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, entered a statement into the record praising businessman Jim Shackleford on the occasion of his retirement as head of Teco Coal Corp. in Kentucky.

Rogers called Shackleford “an astute businessman and a dedicated humanitarian” with a “heart of compassion” and “impeccable leadership skills.”

“He awarded thousands of dollars of donations to various community organizations, emergency response groups and schools,” Rogers said in his statement.

Shackleford also gave $6,000 to Rogers’s campaigns over the years, records show.

Michael Higdon, a spokesman for Rogers, there that was nothing inappropriate in Rogers’s move and that “to suggest Congressional Record statements are politically or otherwise unseemly motivated is absurd.”

Higdon pointed out that on the same day that Rogers “acknowledged Mr. Shackleford’s 27 years creating jobs in Kentucky’s coal fields,” the congressman also “praised the remarkable accomplishments of Pikeville College on winning the 2011 NAIA men’s basketball championship.”

Lawmakers have strict rules about blending official work with campaigning, and it is illegal for them to use federal facilities to conduct campaign work, even to make campaign phone calls inside a federal building. But in many cases, there is a fuzzy line between official duties and campaign work, and lawmakers are not restricted from using official resources to extend favors to supporters.

Rogers is hardly alone in the practice.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) recently went to the floor to defend his “good friend” and campaign donor Rich Niemann, a grocery-chain owner from Quincy, Ill., who brought to Durbin’s attention the issue of the swipe fees that merchants pay to banks on credit card transactions.

“A harder-working guy you would just never, ever find,” Durbin said. “I'm going to stand with him. From my point of view, he’s a good man.”

Durbin was responding to attacks against Niemann reported in a blog post that also cited a 2002 settlement with the Labor Department over child- labor violations involving Niemann Foods. The company did not respond to a request for comment, but Niemann’s son, Rich Niemann Jr., was quoted in press reports at the time saying that the company would no longer employ younger teens after accusations that his stores allowed them to work more than 20 hours a week.

According to federal records, Niemann had donated $2,700 to Durbin’s campaign since 2007.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) used the Senate floor on March 28 to praise Lee Rhyant, the retiring head of Lockheed Martin, a major employer in his state.

“Lee is my friend; he is my neighbor; he is a great American,” Isakson said in his speech.

Lockheed has given Isakson more than $50,000 from the company’s political action committee since the senator took office in 1999, including $20,000 in the 2010 election cycle, according to federal records.

“Senator Isakson has been close personal friends and neighbors with Lee Rhyant for many years,” said Isakson’s press secretary, Lauren Culbertson.

Rep. Sanford D. Bishop Jr. (D-Ga.) recently congratulated Greg and Cheryl Davis for the 25th year of their radio business, Davis Broadcasting, calling them “two friends of long standing.”

“His radio stations touch the lives of all people from all walks of life,” Bishop said in his statement, entered into the record March 17, praising their work for the community.

The Davises have given $5,000 to Bishop’s campaigns over the years. Cheryl Davis, reached at work, declined to comment.

Bishop’s words in the Congressional Record, said his spokesman Adam Hodge, “had nothing to do with their past support, and any attempt to lump the two together mischaracterizes Representative Bishop’s intent.”

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) recently entered a brief statement into the record with an announcement — a birth announcement.

“Mr. Speaker, I am happy to congratulate my good friend Thomas Gordy and his wife, Theresa, on the birth of their daughter, Trenton Talmadge Gordy,” Wilson said.

Thomas Gordy is also a campaign donor, having given $4,800 to Wilson’s reelection race last year, federal records show. He did not return a call seeking comment.

The two became friends while Gordy worked on Capitol Hill and Wilson visited Gordy while he was serving in Iraq, said Neal Patel, a spokesman for Wilson.

Wilson often submits statements into the record “to commemorate special occasions in the lives of his friends,” Patel said. “This is done commonly for many people, many of whom are not donors. . . . Congressman Wilson wanted to give Tom and his family a keepsake like so many other friends.”

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