Lucky for longtime lobbyist Mickey Ibarra, the president of his own lobbying and strategy shop, he could buy that champagne flute with the presidential inaugural seal.
That's only because, months before, Ibarra had technically deregistered as a federal lobbyist — on the advice of counsel, he said, even though he continued doing some lobbying. Others in the influence business — including one lobbyist who told Sunlight she was denied inaugural tickets she had already purchased because of her job — had more difficulty being part of the inaugural festivities.
But an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation raises questions about just how meaningful President Barack Obama's much ballyhooed shunning of lobbyists really is. He has banned many of them from joining his administration and he refused to accept their donations for his inaugural. But the technical definition of what constitutes a lobbyist has provided plenty of room for savvy players to manuever. Case in point: Although the president barred lobbyists from donating to his inaugural, the event was still funded by many people like Ibarra who direct lobbyists, as well as by people who stopped lobbying as late as last year.
At least one current lobbyist, Linda Bennett, who advocates for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is on the Presidential Inaugural Committee's list of donors. She wrote in an email that she bought tickets to the inaugural ball, though she was not able to attend. And the committee has not told her that her donation would be refunded.
Sunlight looked for names of currently or recently registered lobbyists on the committee's list of donors — a list that provided far less identifying information than Obama's first inaugural organizers did. In all, we attempted to contact more than two dozen currently and recently registered lobbyists. Of the fraction that responded, seven confirmed they made the donation.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee did not respond to a request for comment.
Some lobbyists said they were confused or befuddled that the ban on donations meant that they were barred from buying tickets to the official inaugural ball as well as buttons and t-shirts at the online store. Bennett seemed unaware of the ban, asking in an email if it was the law; it is not — it's a voluntary policy by the inaugural committee.
Priscilla Chatman, listed as a donor on the inaugural committee website despite being a lobbyist, said that while the committee accepted her purchase of tickets to the inaugural ball, she was turned away when she showed up at the Washington Convention Center to pick them up. Chatman said she was told the committee "scrubbed" the list for any lobbyists and will be refunding her. In an email to Sunlight, Chatman said she did not know that lobbyists were banned from buying tickets to the inaugural ball.
That isn't to say that special interests didn't have plenty of opportunity for access, however. On the inaugural commmittee's list of more than 3,000 donors are a number of corporations represented by lobbyists. The biggest donors — Obama was offering VIP ticket packages for as much as $1 million, an unusually high level compared to past presidential inaugurations — got five days of exclusive events, including a private brunch at the White House and a candlelight dinner headlined by the president, first lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill.
And then there are the "unlobbyists," Washington players like Ibarra, a former Clinton aide, who does not have to register as a lobbyist so long as he spends less than 20 percent of his time lobbying for a client. While Ibarra told Sunlight he detests the loopholes in the law and prefers a more clear-cut definition of lobbying, he said he decided last fall to play the game that many of his competitors have played in the wake of the administration's restrictions, deregistering when his work schedule allowed him to fall under the 20 percent threshold.
Ibarra's work includes advocating for companies in the Hispanic community, including nuvoTV, a station providing Latino entertainment that is trying to increase its distribution. He helps with outreach to Latino members of Congress. He may spend less time lobbying on behalf of his other clients, including Verizon, but he still directs a team of lobbyists, "all within legal parameters," he said.
He says Obama's restrictions on lobbyists have had the unintended consequence of sending lobbyists underground — because "lobbyist" has become a scarlet word and because of the lack of prosecution if someone fails to register.
There is very little reason to register anymore, he said, "Unless you are one of those rare individuals absolutely committed to following the letter and spirit of the law."
Because of his brief hiatus from registered lobbying, Ibarra could buy $300 worth of inaugural knick-knacks. But soon he'll be more restricted again, he said, since his work for ServiceMaster, a company that provides home warranties, will require him to renew his lobbying registration. ServiceMaster is advocating for legislation to allow companies like it to give kickbacks to mortgage settlement providers who refer business to them.
Ibarra is not alone. As executive director of the National Head Start Association, Yasmina Vinci directs the organization's lobbyists even though she dropped her official registration last year. She bought two tickets to the inaugural ball, giving a few hundred dollars to Obama's celebration.
Other recently deregistered lobbyists who donated say they no longer lobby. That includes Mark Magaña, the man behind the Hispanic Strategy Group, who says he does not lobby while still advertising his lobbying services on his website. He deregistered last year when his work for one client ceased.
Similarly, Moe Vela, a former aide to Biden who describes himself as a "senior executive titan and power broker sharing 25 years of distinguished contacts" says he only does "government relations strategy." Vela was a lobbyist at Holland Knight before starting his own firm last year. He said he is "open to lobbying in the future."
Obama also turned away donations from political action committees just as his campaign did — but that has not stopped those with ties to PACs from giving. Hadar Susskind, a former lobbyist at the pro-Israel lobbying firm J Street, who now heads a PAC called Bend the Arc Jewish Action, donated to the inaugural. Susskind could not be reached for comment.
(Contributing: Jacob Fenton, Jake Harper and Louis Serino; Photo credit: reed_sandridge via Flickr)