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Texas-sized lobbyist bundler shuns Democrats' super PACs

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Democratic super PACs and other outside political groups will be deprived of the party's most generous 2010 bankroller this election: Donor and bundler extraordinaire Ben Barnes is repudiating the outfits that don't provide full financial disclosure.

Since the 2008 election, the 74-year-old Texan has been the lobbyist who, along with his family, has given the most to Democrats  -- more than $900,000 in donations to candidates and committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He has been in Charlotte all week for the Democratic convention with a few aides and was spotted busting a move on the dance floor at the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) late night bash at a downtown club Tuesday night.

In Charlotte, Democratic leaders have launched a concerted effort to catch up with the Republican super PACs that have outraised their Democratic counterparts by a nearly three-to-one margin. Teddy Johnston, national finance chair for the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action, said here that during the past two months Democratic super PACs have gained traction with party donors. But Barnes is not among them. He vowed not to give to super PACs or their sister nonprofit groups that do not disclose their donors.

The "undisclosed, unlimited amount of corporate funds" that super PACs and political groups disguised as social welfare organizations can collect "is the greatest threat I've seen in my lifetime," said Barnes, a former elected official. He criticized Citizens United, the 2010 landmark Supreme Court case that paved the way for corporations and unions to spend an unlimited amount of money on elections—as long as they do not give directly to candidates’ campaigns.

His main beef with the ruling: the lack of disclosure that it permits. 

“It’s not the money that’s corrupting it’s the fact that you can give and nobody knows about it,” he said. He’d like to see contributions disclosed within a day after the check clears. 

Barnes is hardly a dewy-eyed political idealist: His first convention was in 1960, when he was a 22-year-old state representative. Barnes went on to become became the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and the Lone Star State's youngest-ever lieutenant governor. His political career ended after a bribery scandal for which he blames Richard Nixon.

Instead of giving to outside groups, he will be funneling money to candidates, state parties, and the DGA, he said.

Overall, the Texan’s lobbying firm, the Ben Barnes Group, has already been paid  more than $2 million to lobby in Washington this year. He has advocated for some colorful figures in the past, as the Sunlight Foundation documented in 2010.

The Huntsman Corp., run by Jon Huntsman Sr., is one of Barnes’ biggest clients. Former GOP presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman, Jr. is a director at the chemical and manufacturing company. Barnes’ largest client is Weatherford International, an oil and gas services company with major operations in Texas.

Despite his position on super PACs, Barnes’s wife Melanie gave $25,000 last year to Our Destiny PAC, a super PAC backing the unsuccessful presidential candidacy of the centrist Huntsman (who served as Obama's ambassador to China). The super PAC was largely funded by Huntsman Sr.

Where the well-connected Texan is most useful is not with his own checkbook but by encouraging others to give—as both a “bundler” and fundraiser. A bundler is someone who gathers friends’ checks and forwards them to a candidate’s campaign. In the second half of 2010, he bundled about $121,000 for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, according to FEC records.

He says he does not bundle money for the president, out of respect for Obama's self-imposed rule of not accepting money from registered lobbyists.

“I encourage people to give but I don’t bundle for Obama,” Barnes said.

He has held dozens of parties in Texas over the years to raise money for Democrats, he said. On Sept. 16, he is hosting his fourth fundraiser this election cycle alone for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat facing a tough battle for reelection in Missouri. He often opens up his Texas home for such events.

“I’m on everyone’s mailing list,” he said.

(Photo: Benbarnesgroup.com)