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Obama Staffer's Lobbying Work Runs Counter to Candidate's Guidelines, Ethics Watchdogs Say

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By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 28, 2008; 6:55 PM

The co-director of Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Puerto Rico is a Washington-based federal lobbyist for the government of Puerto Rico.

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Ethics watchdogs said that the high-profile role of Francisco J. Pavía appears to contradict the Obama campaign's ethics guidelines, which forbid federal lobbyists from working on staff. But Obama spokesman Bill Burton said Pavía is an "active volunteer" -- not a paid staffer -- and can hold the job without running afoul of the campaign's rules.

Obama and Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, have been trying to outdo each other in their repudiation of lobbyists and the "special interests" they represent.

Obama has criticized McCain for enlisting "some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington" to run his presidential campaign. McCain has instituted tough new rules against lobbyists working for his campaign, which recently led to the resignation of five senior McCain advisers, including his top fundraiser, Tom Loeffler.

Obama also has tried to impose high ethical standards by refusing to take contributions from federal lobbyists and by not allowing lobbyists on his payroll.

But Obama's rules also have been somewhat ambiguous. Some of his campaign's volunteer policy advisers are lobbyists. And at least one lobbyist said he was asked to take a leave of absence from his firm before he volunteered for the campaign.

Moses Mercado, a lobbyist for Ogilvy Government Relations in Washington, said in an interview that he was told by the Obama campaign that he must take an unpaid leave from his firm before working as a get-out-the-vote volunteer earlier this year.

"It was pretty clear," Mercado said. "It was so clear that I made sure I wrote a letter to our office manager saying that on these days I'm taking a leave of absence."

Later, after he said he received a call from Burton, Mercado said he had not been asked to take a leave.

Pavía is not on leave from his law firm, Winston & Strawn, according to the managing partner of its Washington office, Thomas L. Mills.

But he has been an important part of the Obama campaign in Puerto Rico, which holds its Democratic primary Sunday. Obama wrote to Puerto Rico's State Elections Commission in March to designate Pavía and Andres Lopez as "our local representatives" to the commission. In May, Pavía and Lopez signed a posting on Obama's campaign Web site that identified them as co-directors of the Puerto Rico effort and solicited volunteers.

Pavía has been a registered lobbyist for various arms of the Puerto Rican government since 2001, according to disclosure reports filed with the U.S. Senate. His firm's total compensation for lobbying for the commonwealth over that period was more than $3 million.

For the first three months of this year alone, Winston & Strawn was paid $110,000 by the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, which is the government's primary lobbying entity in Washington. Pavía is listed as the firm's primary contact.

Pavía did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

"It sounds like a conflict with Obama's policy," said Melanie Sloan of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "They need to provide an explanation."

Burton said that Pavía's role with the campaign was permissible but that the rules were not airtight. "This is not a perfect solution to the influence of special interests in Washington," he said. "But it is a symbol of the effort that Senator Obama is going to make to decrease the influence that the special interests do have."

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.


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