Obama’s Ban on Lobbyist Giving Doesn’t Keep Them From Charlotte

Tony and Heather Podesta
Heather Podesta, left, and Tony Podesta in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 2, 2011. Democratic conclave beginning Sept. 4 in Charlotte, North Carolina. The husband-and-wife lobbying team of Heather and Tony Podesta held two brunches within walking distance of the convention’s main venues. Photographer: Rebecca D'Angelo/The Washington Post

Heather and Tony Podesta wore scarlet “Ls” at the Democratic National Convention four years ago, a reaction to then-presidential candidate Barack Obama’s exclusion of lobbyists from his campaign.

Obama doesn’t accept lobbyists’ donations or allow them to raise money for his campaign. That still won’t keep the Podestas, one of Washington’s best-known power couples, away from the Democratic conclave beginning Sept. 4 in Charlotte, North Carolina. They’re planning two brunches blocks away from where the delegates will nominate Obama for a second term.

“Yum and fun,” Heather Podesta said.

From meals to cocktail receptions to batting practice at the local minor league ballpark, the Democratic gathering --like its Republican counterpart last week -- will offer plenty of opportunities for special interests to mingle with officials in a position to address their concerns.

Conventions “are just influence-peddling free-for-alls,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a Washington-based advocacy group that favors stricter limits on lobbying. “It just provides schmoozing times for the lobbyists and special interests who want something.”

‘New Acquaintances’

Heather Podesta said the brunches at Charlotte’s Mint Museum are a “great way to host friends, colleagues, and make new acquaintances.”

Her lobbying firm, Heather Podesta + Partners, was paid $3.9 million in the first six months of 2012 by such clients as American Airlines parent AMR Corp. and Prudential Financial Inc., according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group.

Tony Podesta, whose brother served as one of President Bill Clinton’s White House chiefs of staff, founded Podesta Group Inc. and its clients include BP Plc and Lockheed Martin Corp. The company earned $13.7 million through June 30, the third-highest among lobbying firms this year, the center said.

K&L Gates LLP, with a branch in Charlotte, will be shepherding clients to convention events and getting its name publicized.

“Part of the reason we go to conventions is client service: Clients want to go; we want to help them,” said Bill Kirk, a partner in the firm that represents companies including Berkshire Hathaway and JPMorgan Chase & Co. “Secondly, it’s a branding exercise for us. This is a place we want to be.”

Bat Swinging

Monroe, Louisiana-based CenturyLink Inc. and Decatur, Illinois-based Archer Daniels Midland Co. are among the sponsors of the batting practice for Democratic officials, delegates and others on Sept. 4, the convention’s opening day.

The event -- similar to one held at the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida -- will raise money for children’s hospitals in Charlotte and Chicago, and the Illinois delegation will be special guests. (The Charlotte Knights are a Chicago White Sox farm team and Obama was a U.S. senator from Illinois.)

The Illinois delegation includes Senator Richard Durbin, the chamber’s No. 2 Democratic leader, and Representative Bobby Rush, a member of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology.

“With operations in almost every state, we view these events as opportunities to educate delegates from across the country about our broadband investments in their communities, increase brand awareness for the company and meet the next generation of political leaders,” said Linda M. Johnson, a CenturyLink spokeswoman.

‘Available and Visible’

“We want to be available and visible to talk to delegates and guests alike about our company and how it serves vital needs,” said ADM’s Jackie Anderson.

Congress is debating a farm bill that provides agriculture subsidies and money for food stamps. The legislation, which reauthorizes U.S. Agriculture Department programs, expires this month. The Democratic-controlled Senate has passed a bill, while the Republican-led House hasn’t acted on the measure.

The National Association of Broadcasters, whose members include News Corp. and the Walt Disney Co., is another co-sponsor of the baseball event. The broadcasters oppose new Federal Communications Commission rules requiring them to post online who’s buying time on their stations for political commercials and how much they’re paying. The group also is trying to ensure that their members aren’t required to sell airwaves coveted by mobile providers such as Verizon Wireless and AT&T Inc.

“It’s probably smart to have a presence at these events if you’re a lobbying organization,” said Dennis Wharton, an NAB spokesman.

Transportation Issues

The airlines’ Washington-based trade group, Airlines for America, is co-sponsoring a reception Sept. 5 for “transportation policy leaders.” Members include Delta Air Lines Inc. and Southwest Airlines Co.

The Washington-based organization is concerned about $500 million in added annual costs from three proposed regulations, including those regarding pilot training, according to an Aug. 29 briefing by John Heimlich, the group’s chief economist.

“We want to make sure they’re hearing our message,” said Jean Medina, a spokeswoman.

Other sponsors of the transportation event at the Charlotte City Club include trade groups for the trucking and bus industries, and Berkshire Hathaway Inc.’s Burlington Northern Santa Fe LLC railroad.

At both conventions, “it’s sort of like the Super Bowl of political influence,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group. “You have anybody who’s anybody in these two cities and that’s what draws the lobbyists and the special interests like flies to honey.”

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