USA Today–certainly not well-regarded as a source for hard-hitting journalism–has a surprisingly good piece that looks at how lobbyists are able skirt campaign finance regulations by contributing funds to “honor” lawmakers. The paper writes:
Despite a ban on gifts to lawmakers and limits on campaign contributions, lobbyists and groups that employ them can spend unlimited money to honor members of Congress or donate to non-profits connected to them or their relatives. The public – until now – had little insight into the scope of this largely hidden world of special-interest influence.
For the first time, those contributions are being tracked due to ethics rules adopted in 2007. What USA Today found in their comprehensive review wasn’t pretty: lobbyists and their corporate backers are using the loophole to influence lawmakers.
Two specific examples from the article:
Last year, the telecommunication industry gave more than $72,000 to non-profits and charities in honor of Rockefeller, who advocated legislation to provide legal immunity to phone companies that participated in the government’s anti-terrorism eavesdropping program. The largest donation came from AT&T. At the time, Rockefeller chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped broker a deal on the bill, which passed last year.
Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House energy committee, asked an energy company to donate to a foundation that bears his name. His daughter-in-law, Amy Barton, is the unpaid director.
Utility giant Exelon gave $25,000 to the non-profit last June and $50,000 in 2006, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.
Barton wrote to Exelon CEO John Rowe, seeking the money, says David Brown, Exelon’s top lobbyist. The company is one of the nation’s largest producers of nuclear energy. Barton has long advocated on the industry’s behalf, pushing for the opening of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas.