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Big donors to Obama super PAC have lobbying priorities of their own

by
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Priorities USA Action Fund, the third biggest super PAC in the 2012 elections, had 31 donors--individuals and organizations--who contributed $1 million or more to support President Barack Obama's reelection effort. At least 15 of them have business before the federal government, either directly, or through companies they own large stakes in, either from their own efforts or through inheritance.

A Sunlight analysis of these donors' influence profiles in Washington suggest that some of them were thanking the president for favors already accorded, while others may have been donating with the hope of receiving favors in the second term. While some of Obama's biggest backers have benefited from policies that the administration already has enacted -- such as Zynga founder Mark Pinkus, a $1 million Priorities donor whose online gaming company got an important boost from a 2011 decision by the Obama Justice Deparment not to consider Internet gambling a federal crime -- others may be pushing the president to reverse course on a host of policies, ranging from health care law regulations, to taxes, to proposed Defense budget cuts.

The United Auto Workers fit both categories. Many of the labor giants members owe their continued employment to Obama's decision to bail out the auto industry, but that doesn't mean the union won't be looking for more in the second term. The UAW is lobbying for increased spending on big-ticket Pentagon projects and critized the administration for cancelling Army tank upgrades.

Priorities USA provided such groups with an avenue to show their gratitude, or earn the President's, by writing big checks. In the 2012 election, the super PAC spent $66.2 million--a far cry from the $142.7 million that Restore Our Future, the group supporting Republican nominee Mitt Romney, paid out. But Priorities did further a key element of the Obama campaign's reelection strategy: defining--and destroying--Mitt Romney through negative ads.

Priorities USA produced 25 separate 30-second attack ads, 14 of which went after Romney's record at Bain Capital, turning the nominee's private sector experience from a strength to a liability. Though fact checkers found fault with several of Priorities' ads, the super PAC continued to run them.

Bill Burton, who served as Obama's deputy White House press secretary and, prior to that, as spokesman for Obama's 2008 campagn, and Sean Sweeney, and aide to Rahm Emanuel when the Chicago pol served as Obama's chief of staff, launched the super PAC in April 2011; Obama's campaign endorsed its efforts in February 2012. As president and chief fundraiser, Burton and Sweeney brought in Harold Ickes, a registered lobbyist whose lengthy resume includes stints in the Clinton administration, the presidential campaigns of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, the Democratic National Committee and with the Media Fund. The latter was an outside group--called a 527 committee, after the section of the tax code under which it was formed--that spent $57.7 million in the 2004 election on behalf of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., that year's Democratic presidential nominee and now a candidate for a top-level post in Obama's second-term Cabinet. The Federal Election Commission would later levy a $580,000 penalty against the Media Fund for breaking campaign finance laws.

Ickes also played a major role in the fundraising scandals of the 1996 election, which included renting out the Lincoln Bedroom to big donors, steering a potential million-dollar donor to a trio of nonprofit organizations that were aiding Clinton's reelection effort, and running the Democratic National Committee's efforts from his White House office, and he was a frequent--if combative--witness in the subsequent Senate probe of the DNC's 1996 "soft money" machine. Congressional investigators subpoenaed Ickes 34 times, according to a profile of Ickes in Mother Jones, including his role raising big money from big donors for Obama's super PAC.

In a 1997 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Ickes railed against media efforts to follow the money in the 1996 campaign, and added that politicians "don't take people who have given them money out on Pennsylvania Avenue and cane them! They're nice to them!"

Here's a brief rundown of how some donors to Priorities USA might want the Obama administration to be nice to them:

  • James Simons of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies contributed $3 million to Priorities USA. Lobbyists for the fund reported fees of more than $1 million over the past two years, with the tax treatment of carried interest--which allows hedge fund managers to pay taxes at a far lower rate on their earnings than salaried workers--a top issue. Obama's last budget proposed to do away with the loophole.

  • Jeffrey Katzenberg, head of Dreamworks Animation, was a major Obama bundler in addition to being a $2 million contributor to Priorities USA. He was the first to cut the super PAC a seven-figure check. Vice President Joe Biden consulted with Katzenberg while negotiating the end to a longrunning World Trade Organization dispute over what share of the box office U.S. film producers would receive when their films were shown in China. For more details, see here.

  • FCC landlord Franklin Haney gave $1 million to Priorities USA. Haney owns several office buildings that lease space to the federal government, including the Portals, the Washington headquarters of the Federal Communications Commission. For more on Haney's federal interests, see here.

  • Jon L. Stryker, an investor, architect, philanthropist and $2 million Priorities USA donor, derives his fortune from shares of Stryker Corp., a medical device manufacturer, that he inherited. According to the most recent disclosure filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Stryker owns 3.2 million shares of the company outright, and shares control with his siblings of another 15.3 million shares through a trust. Lobbyists for Stryker Corp. have reported spending $435,000 over the past two years lobbying on multiple issues, including bills that would repeal the medical device tax included in the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.

  • Three months after he retired from mobile technology manufacturer Qualcomm's board of directors in March 2012, Irwin Jacobs, the company's founder, gave $2 million to Priorities USA. Qualcomm reported spending more than $9.5 million lobbying the federal goverment over the last two years. A top issue for the company was repatriating foreign earnings by reducing the rate at which they'd be taxed--something the Obama administration has opposed. According to its most recent proxy report, Jacobs owned 20.7 million shares of Qualcomm when he retired; his son is the company's chief executive officer and board chairman.

  • Anne Cox Chambers, owner of cable, newspaper and broadcast conglomerate Cox Enterprises, gave Priorities USA $2 million. Cox Enterprises reported spending $4.3 million lobbying the federal government over the past two years. Among the issues that the closely held company lobbied on were corporate and estate taxes. Because Cox Enterprises is family-owned, passing the business on from one generation to the next creates huge tax liabilities. The company has lobbied since the 1990s to do away with the estate tax, while the Obama administration wants to raise its rate.

  • Heiress Ann Wyckoff, the grandaughter of William Pigott, founder of the Paccar truck manufacturer, gave $500,000 to a group, Washingtonians for Education, Health and Tax Relief, that backed a Washington State ballot proposition that would have raised taxes on the wealthy. The measure failed. In the campaign, Obama consistently said he would like to raise taxes on high income earners. Wyckoff gave $1.5 million to Priorities USA.

  • Mark Pinkus, founder of online gaming company Zynga, gave $1 million to Priorities USA. Zynga hired its first lobbyists in 2012, including a former aide to then Sen. Joe Biden, to monitor regulation and taxation of internet gaming. In December 2011, the Obama administration announced it would no longer consider Internet gaming a violation of the 1961 Wire Act, which barred gambling over telephone wires. Zynga has plans to launch an online gambling venture with a British partner, featuring a version of its popular FarmVille game.

  • Venture capitalist Vinok Khosla gave Priorities $1 million. His firm, Khosla Ventures, which invests in dozens of start-ups, doesn't lobby, but many of the companies in which the firm invests do. KiOR, a biofuels firm, is lobbying to win Environmental Protection Agency approval for a new facility it is building. According to a disclosure filed with the SEC, Khosla Ventures owned one third of KiOR's stock at the end of 2010. Gevo, another biofuels maker, seeks to get the EPA to allow non-ethanol fuels, methanol in Gevo's case, to enter the marketplace. As of July 2010, Khosla Ventures owned more than 40 percent of the shares of Gevo, according to a disclosure filed with the SEC. And Sakti3 is seeking federal funding for vehicle battery development and production.

  • The PAC of the National Association of Air Traffic Controllers contributed $1.25 million. On its website, the union's president, in a congratulatory letter on the election result, touts "the President’s restoration of fair collective bargaining for controllers." Also on their lobbying agenda: making air traffic control an "inherently governmental function," one that couldn't be outsourced to contractors.

  • The United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipe Fitting Industry, which contributed $1.25 million to Priorities USA, lobbied for approval of the Keystone Pipeline that would link Canada's tar sands oil production to U.S. refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. For the United Association, the pipeline would mean jobs for its members, but the Obama admninistration initially blocked approval. Later, it approved a segment of the pipeline connecting Oklahoma to the Gulf. Bloomberg News reported that it is likely that the administration will issue a permit for the rest of the pipeline in his second term.

  • The International Union of Painters and Allied Trades' political action committee gave $1.25 million as well. The union is lobbying on a host of issues, everything from appropriations bills to the Davis-Bacon requirements to pay union wages to funding to restore the Capitol Dome.

  • The Service Employees International Union was a huge supporter of Obama's first run for the White House, spending more than $27.8 million to support his campaign. SEIU celebrated the passage of the Affordable Care Act, and is lobbying on the implentation of the health care bill, among other isues. The union contributed $1 million to Priorities USA.

  • Another labor giver, the United Auto Workers union, gave $1 million via its PAC, the UAW Education Fund. Big proponents of the taxpayer-funded bailouts of both General Motors and Chrysler, the UAW is also lobbying on a host of issues, including more Defense spending for building more tanks, humvees and submarines. In 2010, the union released a "Dear Representative" letter, outlining the Pentagon programs they favored. In 2012, UAW wrote to Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., respectively the chair and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, protesting proposed cuts in the U.S. Army's tank modernization program.