USA Today; by Ken Dilanian; April 15, 2008
WASHINGTON — The screen fills with grainy footage of sprawling 1970s gas lines.
“Nothing’s changed,” Sen. Barack Obama says into the camera, “except now Exxon’s making $40 billion a year, and we’re paying $3.50 for gas. … I don’t take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won’t let them block change anymore.”
Obama’s ad, which has been airing in Pennsylvania as the April 22 primary approaches, is technically true but misleading, as non-partisan FactCheck.org and Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign have been quick to point out.
It’s accurate that Obama doesn’t take money from oil companies; neither do his opponents, because corporate contributions are illegal. But Obama, like Clinton and John McCain, has accepted donations from oil and gas company employees — $222,309 in Obama’s case from donors from Exxon, Shell, Chevron and others, according to campaign-finance data. Two oil company CEOs have pledged to raise at least $50,000 each as part of Obama’s fundraising team.
The point, Obama spokesman Bill Burton said later in a statement, was that Obama doesn’t accept money from oil industry lobbyists or their political action committees (PACs), while his opponents have no such policy.
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“The Obama campaign is trying to create a distinction without very much of a practical difference,” said a statement on the website of FactCheck.org, an affiliate of the University of Pennsylvania. “We’re not sure how a $5,000 contribution from, say, Chevron’s PAC would have more influence on a candidate than, for example, the $9,500 Obama has received from Chevron employees.”
$193 million — and counting
The episode underscores the pitfalls confronting a candidate who rails against special interests while raising $193 million and counting — the most of any presidential campaign. Obama’s fundraising tests the limits of his claim that he is independent of Washington’s influence industry because he doesn’t take money from federal lobbyists and PACs.
Other examples that strain against that claim:
•Obama holds fundraisers at law firms that lobby in Washington. Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed the campaign held five fundraisers at New York and Boston offices of three firms that lobby, including Greenberg Traurig, whose lobbying clients include gambling and handgun interests.
Obama counts lobbyists among his informal advisers, including Broderick Johnson, who heads the Washington lobbying practice of Bryan Cave, which represents Shell Oil, records show. Nine campaign staffers have been lobbyists, public records show. Johnson did not respond to requests for comment.
•Obama accepts money from spouses of federal lobbyists. In December, the campaign returned a $250 contribution from lobbyist Thomas Jensen of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, but a few days later, it cashed a $500 check from his wife, Sarah, records show. Jensen said his wife had “personally chosen” to contribute to Obama.
•Obama accepts contributions and fundraising help from state lobbyists. Florida lobbyist Russell Klenet hosted a fundraiser for Obama Aug. 25, according to the St. Petersburg Times. Two months before, Klenet had withdrawn as a lobbyist in Washington for a kidney dialysis company that relies heavily on federal revenue, Senate records show. Klenet did not return phone calls.
•Obama is raising more than his opponents from executives of some of the corporate interests he criticizes. Obama has received more money from people who work at pharmaceutical and health product companies, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. He’s taken in $528,765 through February, compared with $506,001 for Clinton and $139,400 for McCain, despite saying last July that “I don’t take pharma money.”
Vietor declined to answer questions about lobbyists’ role in the campaign and the candidate’s decision to accept contributions from lobbyists’ spouses and partners. He called Obama’s policy an imperfect but important symbolic step. Vietor said Obama “has long believed that lobbyists exert far too much influence over the national agenda.”
Obama attracts small donors
Obama has called his refusal to accept PAC and federal lobbyist money “a multimillion-dollar” sacrifice, but his opponents’ numbers suggest otherwise. Clinton has raised about $2 million from lobbyists and PACs while McCain has taken in about $1.2 million, according to the center.
Obama points to his unprecedented success in raising small sums from tens of thousands of regular citizens. As of Feb. 29, he had raised 41% of his money in increments of $200 or less, compared with 26% for Clinton and 13% for McCain, according to an analysis by the non-partisan Campaign Finance Institute.
Yet Obama’s 20 largest sources of money, grouped by employers, are executives from major corporations and law firms with a Washington lobbying presence — including Goldman Sachs, Citigroup and Google, according to the center. Clinton’s and McCain’s top donors include executives from some of the same companies, such as Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.