Faced with hiring a new administration, President-elect Barack Obama is learning how hard it is to keep his promise to avoid aides who have been entangled with the capital's lobbying scene.
An Associated Press review of more than 400 members of Obama's transition team identified at least 34 who have registered in recent years to lobby government officials on behalf of clients or employers — some as recently as this summer. The AP's review represents the most comprehensive examination to date of people working on Obama's incoming administration.
During the campaign, Obama promised to keep lobbyists at arm's length, and he has taken steps aimed at keeping out the taint of the influence business. He imposed first-ever rules that prohibit anyone on his transition team from working in policy areas on which they had lobbied in the past year — an arbitrary time period — and a withdrawal system was set up for anyone who might run afoul of the rule.
"By moving lobbyists out of the particular matters they lobbied, our policy distances them from the interests of their clients," transition spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Yet, as Obama is finding out, it is impractical to plan and fill up a new government without connections to lobbyists.
Among the AP's findings:
—An Obama adviser on immigration issues, Maria Echaveste, lobbied for the United Farm Workers this year to protect immigrant agricultural workers as the Bush administration sought to ease hiring of seasonal farm labor and Congress debated an immigration overhaul. Echaveste, who worked in the White House and Labor Department under President Bill Clinton, assured Obama she will not weigh in on the farmworker visa issue that was her lobbying focus.
—The former Agriculture Department official leading Obama's agricultural policy review, Bart Chilton, lobbied until last year as vice president of the National Farmers Union. It spends hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to press for farm subsidy programs, fighting the North American Free Trade Agreement and reducing taxes on farms and ranches.
—A lawyer working on Indian issues for Obama, Keith Harper, has worked as a lawyer for Native American tribes, and wrote in a 2006 article that the Interior Department's handling of Indian trust matters has been a "national disgrace." Obama initially assigned Harper to be his lead adviser on the department, but now Harper is advising the campaign more narrowly on Indian gaming. Harper was registered to lobby on sovereignty issues for a tribe as recently as this year but did not personally lobby, transition aides and a tribe official said.
—An Obama transition adviser for health and human services, Bill Corr, lobbied to prevent children from smoking as executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The group has spent $675,000 this year trying to influence policymakers. Corr has told Obama he will not offer advice on tobacco issues.
—A transition advisory board member, Mark Gitenstein, was registered until August to lobby on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AT&T Inc. and financial firms such as Ernst & Young LLP and Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. Gitenstein is working on transition management issues, not specific policies, but has agreed not to deal with topics on which he lobbied.
Overall, the people Obama is relying on to build his administration have represented unions; energy, environmental groups, insurance, and drug companies; Wal-Mart; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; and the lobbying arm of the Washington-based Center for American Progress. The center is a think tank headed by John Podesta, former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and now co-chairman of Obama's transition.
Also prominent on Obama's new team are his big-money fundraisers. At least 18 of Obama's major financial backers are helping him create his administration. They collected at least $50,000 each from friends and associates to help pay for the most expensive presidential campaign in history.
A few raised at least $500,000 each. They include two former officials from the Federal Communications Commission: Donald Gips, a one-time aide to Vice President Al Gore who is co-chairman of Obama's teams reviewing government agencies; and Julius Genachowski, who was an executive at Barry Diller's IAC/InterActiveCorp, when the Internet giant owned Ticketmaster and Home Shopping Network. Genachowski is working on technology and government reform policy for the new administration.
A former Justice Department official advising Obama on the department, Thomas Perrelli, raised at least $500,000 for Obama. Perrelli is managing partner of a Washington law firm, Jenner & Block LLP. He lobbied pro bono in 2002 on behalf of victims of the 1998 Africa embassy bombings. His firm's law clients have included the mortgage company Fannie Mae, General Motors and the husband of Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman at the center of a bitter right-to-die battle.
Perrelli, a copyright expert, has represented Hollywood studios and the music industry cracking down on Internet piracy — a lingering problem facing the department.
This is how Washington works: People work for the government or seek to influence it, and often pass from one role to the other through what is known as "the revolving door." Policy experts routinely use their expertise to influence the government.
Gary Andres, a lobbyist who was a White House aide in the first Bush administration, said it is unrealistic to cut out lobbyists when recruiting policy experts for a new administration.
"A lot of the people you're going to draw upon, if they're not in government, are involved in lobbying," he said.
Despite Obama's efforts to insulate his new administration from what might be tainted advice, lobbyists' involvement in the new government warrants close scrutiny, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan institute that studies the influence business.
"They are taking a risk by taking these people on board," Krumholz said. "If they're viewed as being in the pocket of industry, that is not going to be beneficial to this administration that is trying so hard to claim a new mantle."
A former State Department official, Tom Donilon, is helping Obama on foreign policy. Donilon worked as a registered lobbyist at Fannie Mae from 1999 until 2005, when the current mortgage crisis was quietly brewing. Donilon was part of the team reporting more than $40 million in lobbying activity during that period.
Another Obama adviser, Michael Strautmanis, worked for trial lawyers as recently as 2005 on issues related to medical malpractice and health care liability, and in 2004 on asbestos issues. Strautmanis is a former aide to Obama in the Senate. He heads public liaison and intergovernmental affairs at Obama's transition office.
In addition to the 12-month restriction, Obama bars lobbyists from making donations to cover transition costs and will restrict access to his administration for transition team members who later take up lobbying. Podesta has called the self-imposed limits "the strictest, most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history."
Obama's aides said they are focused on each adviser's policy credentials. But watchdog advocates say vigilance will be needed. "The question always is, with that kind of money, what is the influence and the interest they bring?" said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.
There are roughly 15,000 registered lobbyists in Washington. But there are probably six times that many who meet a common-sense definition of lobbyist, said James Thurber, who teaches lobbying at American University. For example, Obama health policy adviser and likely health secretary, former Sen. Tom Daschle, has worked for the lobbying and law firm Alston & Bird, but does not register personally because he advises clients rather than directly contacting government officials.
That is a technicality based on the narrow "lobbyist" definition, Thurber said.
The transition recognized potential conflicts could arise even beyond the strict legal definition of lobbying. Thus, Pamela Gilbert, who is working on consumer product safety issues for Obama, has withdrawn on an issue that was part of her law practice rather than her lobbyist work: federal pre-emption of state laws.
"If someone is paid to try to change public policy or stop something, that's a lobbyist," said Thurber, adding that lobbyists are a constant. "I don't think you can govern without them. The important thing is to be honest and transparent."
Copyright 2015 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.