In the 2012 election 28 percent of all disclosed political contributions came from just 31,385 people. In a nation of 313.85 million, these donors represent the 1% of the 1%, an elite class that increasingly serves as the gatekeepers of public office in the United States.
Updated: 3:15 p.m.
In his two runs for the White House, President Obama pledged that he would not accept money from registered lobbyists. But his campaign received donations from people who, while not registered, walk and talk an awful lot like lobbyists, including advisors who manage lobbyists.
Sunlight’s investigation into the political 1 percent of the 1 percent — the donor class whose members individually contributed at least $12,950 to political campaigns in the 2012 election — showed that many, many big donors in the influence business have contributed to the president.
At least four dozen of them — lobbyists and employees of lobbying or public relations firms — contributed to the president in 2011 or 2012. One officially registered lobbyist even donated and, unlike the other registered lobbyists who did so, his contribution was not refunded.
SEE MORE: Sunlight’s look at the lobbyists in the 1 percent of the 1 percent in 2012
President Obama pledged on the campaign trail in 2008, “We will not take a dime from Washington lobbyists or special interest PACs. We’re going to change how Washington works.”
But the policy ended up meaning that he would not accept money from officially registered lobbyists, a porous legal standard that allows many to influence government officials without ever registering to do so. Unless one spends at least 20 percent of his time lobbying on behalf of a client in a three-month period and makes more than one contact with an executive or legislative branch official, there is no need to register.
A recent Center for Responsive Politics report showed that of the registered lobbyists that deregistered in 2012, 46 percent remained with the same organization, suggesting that it’s easy for a lobbyist to adjust her workload to avoid registering.
The lone registered lobbyist donor
Despite the ban, there were at least five registered lobbyists in the 1 percent of the 1 percent who contributed to the president. Four of them received refunds from the Obama campaign. But the money from another, a former GOP congressman from Texas who rarely gives to Democrats, was not turned away.
Beau Boulter, who was last in Congress in the late 1980s, gave over $50,000 to candidates for Congress and political action committees in the 2012 cycle, but only to one Democrat — $500 to President Obama. The reason Boulter gave was pretty simple.
“My political giving is way tilted to Republicans. But I’ve met Obama, and I like him. It’s that simple,” Boulter wrote in an email.
He added: “I’m not qualified to comment on the Obama campaign’s internal guidelines on what contributions the campaign would accept or refund in 2012.”
A White House spokesperson did not respond to an inquiry on the subject and neither did a spokesperson for Organizing for Action, the president’s nonprofit group that used to be his campaign committee.
Boulter has his own lobby shop and his clients include the American subsidiary of defense contractor Finmeccanica, an Italian conglomerate that makes the C-27J aircraft bought by the Air Force. Boulter lobbies on the issue for the company. The Obama administration and the Air Force requested in its 2013 budget that the program be discontinued, but it has been given new life by Congress. House appropriators restored the program when it passed its spending bill in summer 2012, something that Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., touted in a press release.
Earlier this year, when Congress passed another round of funding for the Defense Department into law, the C-27J program was supported to the tune of nearly $200 million.
After publication of this article, Boulter sent an email to Sunlight stating, “I have never met Rep. Courtney and have never had any communications with his office.”
While Boulter was registered to lobby when he contributed, a much larger number of Obama donors from the 1 percent of the 1 percent were working in the influence industry without registering. That group includes James Blanchard, a former Democratic Michigan governor and member of Congress, and currently the chair emeritus of DLA Piper’s Government Affairs Practice Group.
Blanchard, who was last registered to lobby in 2011, contributed $15,000 to the president’s joint fundraising committee in 2012. That was only months after he deregistered.
In an interview with Sunlight, Blanchard said that in his current work, he mainly deals with personnel management of DLA Piper’s global affairs law practice, one of the largest in the world, not lobbying.
But Blanchard is not the only recently deregistered lobbyist to donate to the president. Broderick D. Johnson, while at Bryan Cave LLP, lobbied for Microsoft and the Financial Services Forum in early 2011. Later that year, he was hired as a senior advisor to the Obama campaign and soon wrote it a $1,000 check. And as Sunlight reported, many K Street insiders gave to Obama’s second inauguration within a year of deregistering.
Many other unlobbyists have given to the president, including Kathryn C. Brown, the senior vice president for public policy development for Verizon. As the former chief of staff to the Federal Communications Commission chairman, Brown would know the ins and outs of the agency most important to the company. She donated nearly $5,000 — the maximum allowed — to the president.
Another big donor may not be a Washington lobbyist — but he is a Badger State one. Scott Tyre, the owner of Madison, Wisc.-based Capitol Navigators, aims to influence state policymakers. In touting his skills on his website, however, he mentions that among his key contacts are leaders in Congress.
There are also public relations professionals who aim to influence policymakers. Some call attention to their closeness to lawmakers.
Three executives from Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, a D.C. strategic communications firm, all maxed out to the president: Lawrence Rasky, Joseph Baerlein and George Conlin. The firm is involved in “building relationships with public officials” to “ensure that your voice, is heard,” according to its website.
The law that covers lobbyist registration, the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act, has been criticized by organizations ranging from Sunlight and the Center for Responsive Politics to the American League of Lobbyists, the trade association for, no surprise, Washington lobbyists. The LDA, as it’s known in Washington insider-ese, has enough loopholes, high thresholds and poorly defined distinctions between what is lobbying and what is not that many in the influence industry can remain unregistered, and legally so.
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., has become synonymous with this tactic. While Daschle has never registered as a lobbyist, he has raked in millions for lobbying firms Alston & Bird and DLA Piper as a “policy advisor” guiding clients on government relations activities.
Daschle contributed $4,300 to Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the maximum $5,000 to his reelection bid.
Except for Blanchard, none of the other unlobbyists responded to interview requests.
Peter Olsen Phillips contributed reporting.