A Few Degrees of Separation From Hillary Clinton's Top Adviser

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Mark J. Penn is a man who wears many hats: high-paid political and corporate pollster, chief executive of an international communications and lobbying company, and chief strategist to New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Enough connections for you?

Well, there are more. Penn's firm, Burson-Marsteller Worldwide -- with 2,000 employees and $300 million a year in revenue -- owns BKSH & Associates, the major lobbying firm chaired by Charles R. Black Jr. That's right, Black, counselor to Republican presidents, reports to Clinton's top strategist.

The connections get even more entangled. Burson-Marsteller is a subsidiary of WPP Group, a London-based advertising and PR giant that owns many of the biggest names on K Street. These include Quinn Gillespie & Associates, Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, Timmons & Co., Ogilvy Government Relations Worldwide (formerly the Federalist Group), Public Strategies Inc., Dewey Square Group and Hill & Knowlton.

To be more precise, Penn's parent company employs as lobbyists and advisers an ex-chairman of the Republican National Committee (Edward W. Gillespie), a former House GOP leader (Robert S. Walker), a top GOP fundraiser (Wayne L. Berman), and the former media adviser to President Bush (Mark McKinnon).

WPP's Democrats are just as well known. They include an ex-aide to President Jimmy Carter (Anne Wexler), an ex-aide to President Bill Clinton (Jack Quinn), an ex-Cabinet officer for Clinton and Bush (Norman Y. Mineta), and a former top presidential campaign adviser for Al Gore and John Kerry (Michael J. Whouley).

The range of interests represented by these people is a staggering list of corporate America's who's who, with Penn himself a longtime adviser to Microsoft.

"This is a classic example of how big money has inextricably intertwined the campaign advising and lobbying worlds of modern-day Washington with potential conflicts of interest all over the place," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a watchdog group.

WPP insists that things are not quite so intertwined and that its units are strictly segregated. "The various WPP businesses are purposely run independently, and there is no risk of any conflict between clients," said Howard Paster, who is Penn's boss, an ex-aide to President Clinton and a high-level volunteer for Hillary Clinton's campaign.

"I also, personally, don't do any lobbying," added Penn, 53.

But WPP does encourage cross-referrals, especially to avoid conflicts within its firms. "We occasionally will do things with one of the other companies," said Quinn, whose firm worked with Burson-Marsteller's polling firm, Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates, on the reelection of Italy's former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. The polling firm, of which Penn remains president, is the WPP unit that will be paid millions by the Clinton campaign for Penn's attention.

Jefferson's Reprieve?

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has reversed the conviction of a former District police detective in a case that experts believe might make it tougher for the feds to prosecute Rep. William J. Jefferson (D-La.).

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