White House visitor logs show lobbying going strong

May 20, 2012

Before 9 a.m., a group of lobbyists began showing up at the White House security gates with the chief executives of their companies, all of whom serve on President Obama’s jobs council, to be checked in for a roundtable with the president.

At 1 p.m., a dozen representatives from the meat industry arrived for a briefing in the New Executive Office Building. At 3 p.m., a handful of lobbyists were lining up for a ceremony honoring the 2011 World Series champions, the St. Louis Cardinals.

And at 4 p.m., a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs arrived in the Old Executive Office Building for a meeting with Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

It was an unremarkable January day, with a steady stream of lobbyists among the thousands of daily visitors to the White House and the surrounding executive office buildings, according to a Washington Post analysis of visitor logs released by the administration. The Post matched visits with lobbying registrations and connected records in the visitor database to show who participated in the meetings, information now available in a search engine on the Post’s web site.

The visitor logs for Jan. 17 — one of the most recent days available — show that the lobbying industry Obama has vowed to constrain is a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The records also suggest that lobbyists with personal connections to the White House enjoy the easiest access.

More than any president before him, Obama pledged to change the political culture that has fueled the influence of lobbyists. He barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration and banned them from advisory boards throughout the executive branch. The president went so far as to forbid what had been staples of political interaction — federal employees could no longer accept free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups.

“A lot of folks,” Obama said last month, “see the amounts of money that are being spent and the special interests that dominate and the lobbyists that always have access, and they say to themselves, maybe I don’t count.”

The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama’s senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street’s most influential representatives. In many cases, those lobbyists have long-standing connections to the president or his aides. Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.

Lobbyist Marshal Matz, for example, who served as an unpaid adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, has been to the White House roughly two dozen times in the past 21 / 2 years. He has brought along the general counsel for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the chief executive of cereal maker General Mills and pro bono clients, including advocates for farmers in Africa.

In April 2011, Matz came to the Old Executive Office Building with the owner of Beef Products Inc. to meet with Robin Schepper, a woman he has known for years who heads Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign. The company owner argued that one of his products should be promoted for school lunches, according to two participants in the meeting.

Matz, like most of the lobbyists contacted for comment, declined to be interviewed. But Howard Hedstrom, a Minnesota sawmill owner and president of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition that hired Matz, said: “I appreciate Marshall’s ability to have access. . . . He opened the door, but basically the conversation was carried by those of us who know the issues.”

White House spokesman Eric Schultz referred in a statement to Obama’s “unparalleled commitment to reforming Washington” and noted that this is the first administration to release the visitor records. “The people selected for this article are registered lobbyists, but this article excludes the thousands of people who visit the White House every week for meetings and events who are not,” he said. “Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we’ve done more than any Administration in history.”

Acting on a pledge to make government more transparent, Obama released the visitor logs, although he did so to settle a lawsuit seeking the records. The administration publishes the information monthly, with a three-month delay, so the latest information is from January.

The lack of a list from previous administrations makes it impossible to know whether paid advocates have more or less access than in the past.

The logs show the names of the roughly 2,600 people each day who are given a badge to enter the White House, the Old Executive Office Building, the New Executive Office Building or the vice president’s residence. The visits can be for any purpose, from meetings, group tours and state dinners to basketball with the president.

The database containing the visits lists more than 2 million visits, with 1.3 million distinct names, but includes no other information about their identities or professions.

Many of the lobbyists who appear on the visitor logs are representing organizations that support administration policies. Bill Samuel, lobbyist for the AFL-CIO, for example, has been to the White House more than 50 times since Obama took office. The logs show he met four times with former White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley and three times with Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council.

“We’re not dealing with any state secrets here,” Samuel said, noting that his organization has worked closely with the White House to persuade lawmakers to pass job-boosting legislation.

Other White House allies have visited almost as often, including Nancy Zirkin, a lobbyist for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Laura Murphy, who represents the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The administration’s stance on lobbying may be a great applause line for people outside the Beltway but there are people here in D.C. who are lobbying on behalf of a multitude of worthy causes,” Murphy said.

Tony Podesta, brother of former Obama aide John D. Podesta, has visited 27 times. And Robert Raben, who represents many liberal causes, has been 47 times.

But lesser-known names are also among the frequent lobbyist visitors, including Tim Hannegan, an informal adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign with clients such as Comcast and Taser International. He has been to the White House and executive buildings more than 30 times for social events or meetings.

Hannegan did not respond to requests for comment.

In October, Hannegan gathered at the Old Executive Office Building with the CEO and a lobbyist from his client Kelly Services and aides in charge of the president’s jobs council. Among other things, the group discussed a tax credit that Kelly, which supplies temporary office staffers, was pushing to encourage companies to hire unemployed veterans. Obama signed into law the credit, known as the VOW to Hire Heroes Act, a month and a half later.

James McIntire, the Kelly Services lobbyist, noted the advantage of hiring Hannegan, who is very familiar with the White House. “He was aware of many of the administration’s ideas and then directionally where they were heading,” McIntire said.

Hannegan was also the top lobbyist for a coalition of for-profit colleges, which successfully argued for weaker regulations affecting their industry. The Washington Post Co., which owns Kaplan University, also lobbied on that issue.

Among the lobbyists with close ties to the White House is former New York congressman Tom Downey, who is married to Carol Browner, until last year Obama’s energy czar. Downey is the head of Downey McGrath Group, a lobbying firm whose clients include Time Warner Cable and Herbalife, which sells nutrition and dieting products. He has been to the White House complex for meetings and events 31 times.

Downey declined to be interviewed, but a statement from his office noted that before Browner joined the administration, “he took the extraordinary step of discontinuing work for a client with issues in her purview” and did not sign up new clients in that area during her tenure.

On Dec. 10, 2010, Downey held a meeting with economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers and Bill Cheney, the head of the Credit Union National Association, one of Downey McGrath’s clients. John Magill, the top lobbyist for the association, said that the group was pushing to lift the cap on the percentage of assets its members can lend out. The group asked Downey to request the meeting because he is a well-known Democrat.

“Had it been the Bush administration, we probably would have asked one of our Republican consultants to make the call,” Magill said. “That’s the way it works.”

Downey also visited his wife about 20 times in the two years she worked there, usually signed into the building by her aides. The logs show him attending a raft of social events, including holiday parties, a St. Patrick’s day reception and two senior staff dinners.

Andrew Menter, the chief executive of Vivature Health, said that Downey helped set up a meeting for him in December 2010 with Michael Hash, a top health-policy official. The group discussed how the new health-care law might affect Menter’s business, a Texas-based company that provides billing services for college health programs.

“The whole process was interesting for me. It’s a little scary,” Menter said. “You need a lobbyist to get a meeting.”

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