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New records show some lobbyists are top fundraisers for political candidates

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 31, 2010; A01

For more than a decade, Brian L. Wolff was the quintessential Washington insider, serving as one of Rep. Nancy Pelosi's closest aides as she rose through the House and helping to raise millions as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

But the fundraising didn't stop once he left the DCCC. As a top lobbyist at the Edison Electric Institute, which represents major power companies in the climate debate, Wolff has bundled together more than $600,000 in contributions for the DCCC within the past year -- and he hopes to raise $2 million more for the committee by November.

"It's my night job," Wolff said of his fundraising efforts. "It's something that's an investment for me and that's something I want to be able to help with. . . . I know the national base of the party, and they know me."

Wolff is among nearly 160 registered lobbyists who have raised at least $9 million for political parties and federal candidates over the past year, according to a Washington Post analysis of records filed under new Federal Election Commission requirements.

For the first time, the records provide a clear public view into one of the most influential subcultures in Washington: lobbyists who moonlight by bundling campaign contributions for candidates and their political parties. The fundraising occurs even as the same lobbyists attempt to shape legislation to benefit their clients, including energy firms, insurers and other corporations with major financial stakes in the outcome of federal legislation.

"This is one of the most critical functions that many lobbyists play in this town," said Meredith McGehee, policy director at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan group that advocates tougher campaign finance regulations. "It's what gives them their access and, in some respects, their power."

Bundling has become a cornerstone of the money game in Washington, allowing lobbyists and other fundraisers to funnel multiple contributions to campaigns without running afoul of individual donation limits. The practice is a frequent target of criticism from reformers, and President Obama proposed new limits on lobbyist contributions and bundling earlier this year.

The new FEC records come as the result of 2007 legislation, also supported by Obama, requiring reports of contributions of $16,000 or more that are bundled by lobbyists. The process is riddled with loopholes, however: The reports do not identify the specific contributors whose donations were bundled, and under FEC rules some recipients don't have to file at all if they don't already keep track of bundlers.

Even so, the new data provide a revealing look at the central role of lobbyist-fundraisers in channeling money to candidates, particularly to Democrats, who currently control the levers of power in Washington. About three-quarters of the contributions documented in the reports went to Democratic committees or candidates, with the DCCC ($2.4 million) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ($1.1 million) topping the list. (The Democratic National Committee, following Obama's lead, does not accept contributions from registered lobbyists.)

The DCCC's status as the top recipient is ironic given that the committee chairman, Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), wrote the ethics law provision that required the disclosures. DCCC spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said the committee strives to report all contributions connected to lobbyist fundraising and suggested that Republicans are less forthcoming.

"What we do is fully transparent and disclosed," Crider said, adding that Van Hollen "sticks to both the spirit and the letter of the law."

On the GOP side, the National Republican Senatorial Committee accepted $870,000 in contributions bundled by lobbyists while the National Republican Congressional Committee took in about $520,000, the records show.

The Republican National Committee reported just one lobbyist who bundled money: former New York congressman Bill Paxon, who raised $180,000 for the GOP. Paxon, whose clients have included Boeing and Harrah's Entertainment, did not respond to a telephone call requesting comment. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who recently left the Republican Party to run for the Senate as an independent, also collected more than $300,000 from lobbyist bundlers.

The leading individual beneficiary was Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), a top Democratic fundraiser whose campaign received more than $570,000 in contributions bundled by registered lobbyists, including more than $30,000 each from the political action committees for the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, records show. During last year's health-care legislation debate, two top lobbyists at the Greater New York Hospital Association bundled more than $300,000 in donations for Schumer's campaign and the DSCC, which he has led.

The hospital association, which did not respond to a request for comment, has spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying since the start of 2009 and was instrumental in persuading lawmakers to soften cuts in medical payments for New York in the final health-care deal. The state gained $2.1 billion in Medicaid reimbursements alone compared with previous proposals, according to industry estimates.

"It is part of the senator's job to make sure New York's hospitals have the resources they need, and he is proud of his record of standing up for them," said Schumer spokesman Brian Fallon.

The biggest lobbyist-bundler on the list is Ben Barnes, a longtime Democratic insider from Texas who raised more than $640,000 at a single fundraiser last year for the DCCC, according to records and officials. Barnes, who did not respond to requests for comment, has represented more than two dozen clients since 2009, including General Motors, Oracle and Motorola, lobbying records show.

Another prolific K Street bundler is superlobbyist Tony Podesta, who together with his wife, Heather, raised more than $500,000 for Democratic committees and candidates from July 2009 through last week, including $100,000 for Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The Podesta Group, one of Washington's top lobbying firms, boasts dozens of clients including Bank of America, BP, Google, Lockheed Martin, Wal-Mart Stores and Wells Fargo.

Those and many other companies represented by Podesta have major stakes in the benchmark issues of the day, from the health-care overhaul to financial regulation to the catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. But Podesta, an outspoken and gregarious advocate for K Street, said being a lobbyist is "incidental" to his political activities.

"I don't raise money for anybody I don't already know," said Podesta, whose political career dates to the Eugene McCarthy presidential campaign in 1968. "I'm not going to stop being active in politics because I'm a lobbyist."

While many lobbyists are unapologetic about their role as fundraisers, some say they are reluctant and uneasy participants in the process. Robert Raben, who represents many liberal nonprofits and advocacy groups, reported bundling more than $70,000 for his former boss, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), and the DCCC over the past year. But Raben said he would gladly give up fundraising in favor of full public financing of campaigns.

"The privately financed campaign system is awful, and it's a stain on good governance, but it's the system we have," he said. "I don't believe in bringing a knife to a gunfight. I want people who are kicking [expletive] on progressive public policy to have the resources they need. That's why I do what I have to do."

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.

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