By John Solomon and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, October 12, 2007
Just a few months before he joined the presidential race, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) co-sponsored a little-noticed proposal to require the Pentagon to spend $2 million on brain trauma research for soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The beneficiary of the Aug. 2, 2006, earmark from him and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) was undeniably close to home: the University of Chicago, where his wife, Michelle, worked as the university hospital's vice president for community and external affairs.
Earlier this year, Obama made dozens of additional earmark requests, and -- consistent with his position that such requests be transparent -- he publicly disclosed the beneficiaries. More than half a dozen requests were meant for clients of a lobbying and law firm whose partners have donated more than $38,000 to Obama in the past two years.
Obama's work highlights the delicate balancing act faced by several members of Congress running for president, as they try to sound a populist, anti-special-interest message while also fulfilling their traditional role of delivering federal money for their constituents' pet projects.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who has rejected Obama's attacks that she is too close to lobbyists, arranged a $3 million earmark this spring for the development of hydrogen-fuel and hybrid technology by General Motors, whose lobbyists include one of her biggest fundraisers.
And Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.), whose presidential campaign frequently attacks excessive spending by Congress, requested more than five dozen earmarks this year worth tens of millions of dollars for causes as diverse as rebuilding a Texas theater, funding a local trolley and helping his state's shrimp industry.
"Yes, Barack Obama is indeed guilty of fighting for important projects in Illinois that help veterans, kids and important infrastructure priorities," said Bill Burton, Obama's campaign spokesman. "He is committed to dramatically reforming the earmark process, and as president he will do so."
Durbin spokesman Joseph Shoemaker said that the senator originally came up with the idea for the University of Chicago earmark and that he invited Obama to join in the request. Shoemaker added that he was unaware of any conversations about Michelle Obama's role at the university.
The earmark faced stiff opposition on the Senate floor last year. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), then the Appropriations Committee chairman, said directing the funds to the University of Chicago would circumvent the normal process by which the National Institutes of Health hands out research funds.
"For this to be earmarked here, now, means they no longer have to compete," Stevens said of the university. "The program [NIH has] for allocating money, I think, should not be obviated by an earmark here on the floor." The spending proposal was eventually set aside.
Bernadette Sargeant, a former counsel for the House ethics committee, questioned whether Obama should have put his name on a request that would have sent funds to his wife's employer. "It is not like her salary is going to change because of this benefit," she said. "But, given her title and the stature of her position, it is a prestige enhancement, or could be perceived as a prestige enhancement."
Sargeant said Obama's decision to co-sponsor the earmark raises concerns under two provisions of the Senate ethics code. The first requires senators to avoid performing official acts that can directly benefit a spouse, and the second more broadly tells senators to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
"There should be a protective wall between benefits directed to her employer and her husband's official acts," Sargeant said. "I would have said, 'Stay away from it.' "
Robert Bauer, an ethics lawyer who advises Obama and others, said the senator from Illinois did nothing wrong. "There's absolutely no violation here," he said. "Senate rules on this point are absolutely clear. Michelle Obama is not a lobbyist. Nor has she personally benefited in any way from a request for funding for a research project at one of the largest and most distinguished hospitals in the city and in the country."
On the campaign trail, Obama has been among the most vocal critics of the way things work in Washington, tapping into a public disdain for the influence wielded by lobbyists. "The more people know about how federal laws, rules and regulations are made, and who's making them, the less likely it is that critical decisions will be hijacked by lobbyists and special interests," he told a crowd in New Hampshire in June, according to published reports.
Until this year, lawmakers were able to shield from public view the work they did to help companies and causes -- and often campaign supporters -- get federal money.
"The new disclosure requirements raise questions that all the candidates will have to answer for the first time," said Ellen S. Miller, co-founder and executive director of the Sunlight Foundation.
Obama's campaign aides said there is nothing in his long list of earmarks that he needs to apologize for, noting that the recipients included Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, the Chicago Botanic Garden, the Illinois Primary Health Care Association and the Illinois Institute of Technology.
These and four other groups hired the firm Holland & Knight to lobby for the earmark requests. Though Obama does not accept contributions from registered federal lobbyists, he took 30 contributions totaling $25,900 for his presidential bid from lawyers at the firm who are not lobbyists. Those lawyers also gave about $12,000 to his Senate campaign in the past two years.
Susan Bass, a spokeswoman for Holland & Knight, said firm members' political contributions are not orchestrated to gain influence with a specific lawmaker. "Individuals who choose to contribute to presidential campaigns do so as individuals and not as representatives of the firm," she said.
Clinton, over the past three years, has secured $8 million in earmarks for General Motors for hybrid, hydrogen and fuel-cell research. The latest installment came in May, when she announced that she had secured $3 million for GM in the fiscal 2008 Pentagon spending bill.
One of GM's main lobbyists on the issue is Steve Ricchetti, a deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House and one of Hillary Clinton's "Hillraisers" who are committed to raising at least $100,000 for her presidential campaign. As a donor, he has given $4,600, the maximum allowed, to the campaign.
Ricchetti's firm reported earning $120,000 in the first half of this year from lobbying for GM on issues that included the "development and promotion of hydrogen fuel cells and hybrid vehicles."
Ricchetti said he and his firm did not lobby Clinton on that specific earmark and he did not know how the funding was secured. Though his partners at times lobby Clinton's Senate office, Ricchetti said, he has decided not to do so because he still does political work for both Hillary and Bill Clinton.
Clinton campaign spokesman Phil Singer said the senator does not consider contributions or fundraising when making official decisions. "One thing has nothing to do with the other," Singer said.
Paul confirmed through aides to his presidential campaign that he has requested earmarks for Texas projects. But they said he subsequently voted against all of the spending bills that contained the requests.
"He does think it is his congressional duty to forward all of his constituent requests, and he forwards those requests, and those are earmarks," said Paul spokesman Jesse Benton. "It is not the earmarks that are the problem. It's the size of the spending bills. . . . Ron wants to shrink the size of the pie, and that is why he votes against these overly expensive, unbalanced spending bills."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.