Clinton, Obama bank major donations from Abramoff's former law firm
Jack Abramoff has been the specter haunting Republican politicians for a few years now. The disgraced GOP lobbyist, who pled guilty in 2006 on fraud and corruption charges, burrowed his way deep into Washington, DC's political elite, leading to the convictions of top Bush administration officials and contributing to 2006's electoral calamity for the Republican Party. Abramoff's fall also encouraged Democrats to reposition themselves as the party of clean government.
But in 2008, it might be harder for the Democratic presidential nominee to make the same case that his or her Congressional counterparts successfully built in 2006. Facing off against likely Republican nominee John McCain, who as a senator led early investigations into Abramoff's corrupt lobbying, either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama could find themselves linked to Abramoff and his former law firm, the Miami-based giant Greenberg Traurig.
A RAW STORY review of Federal Election Commission records shows that Clinton and Obama both received hundreds of thousands of dollars of donations from Greenberg Traurig staff. Moreover, each candidate has particularly benefited from the largesse of the firm's top management and its registered lobbyists.
The Clinton and Obama campaigns were both contacted on Monday and Wednesday for comment regarding donations to their candidates from Abramoff-linked donors. Neither responded to RAW STORY's queries.
Giant firm takes out checkbook for Democratic candidates
Greenberg Traurig has offices all over the United States and is one of the largest law firms in the country. It hired Jack Abramoff and his lobbying team in 2001, and fired him in 2004 when knowledge of a federal investigation of his practices became public.
Greenberg Traurig attorneys have actively donated to this season's presidential campaigns. A Feb. 12 article from the Huffington Post noted that McCain, the senator whose Indian Affairs Committee investigations helped bring down Abramoff and embroiled Greenberg Traurig in years of legal trouble, took in more than $100,000 from the firm's employees.
But McCain was not alone among the likely presidential candidates in receiving big money from Greenberg Traurig attorneys. According to FEC records, Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, along with her earlier senate campaign and political committees, received just under $200,000 in donations from Greenberg Traurig employees. And Barack Obama, who has not been operating a national political campaign as long as Clinton, is halfway there, banking just over $100,000 from the firm's attorneys.
But beyond merely earning donations from the firm's attorneys, Clinton and Obama have both benefited heavily from the firm's registered lobbyists and management.
In all, Senator Clinton received just under $50,000 in donations from Greenberg Traurig's registered lobbyists who represent interests ranging from health insurance company Humana to New Balance Shoes to Dole Food. But Clinton also received about $18,000 in donations from lobbyists who worked directly on accounts with Abramoff himself.
Both Joe Reeder and Alan Slomowitz, who worked alongside Abramoff for various clients, have donated to Clinton's presidential campaign. Reeder worked with Abramoff on an account with Voor Huisen Project Management, which appeared to be a shell corporation and paid Abramoff $2.1 million in fees. Slomowitz was a registered lobbyist for the American International Center, a money laundering front organization established by Abramoff and run by a lifeguard in Delaware, as well as many of his other accounts.
The other two Clinton donors, Ronald Platt and Michael D. Smith, both left Greenberg in the aftermath of the Abramoff controversy, and only made donations to Clinton's pre-presidential political committee "Friends of Hillary." Smith, along with three other former Greenberg employees, was asked to resign from Greenberg after improperly taking payments from a firm run by Michael Scanlon, an Abramoff associate who pled guilty to a conspiracy charge in 2005.
None of these four lobbyists have been charged with breaking any laws.
Obama, on the other hand, appears to have remained mostly true to his frequent pledges to not take money from lobbyists. But recently, one appears to have made it through the firewall.
Richard Edlin, a registered Greenberg Traurig lobbyist with SPI Spirits, gave the senator $1,500 in the 4th Quarter of 2007. While Edlin was not a member of Abramoff's team, he was implicated in one of the convicted lobbyists' money laundering schemes, according to a June 2006 report in The Hill. However, as the article points out, "It is unclear...whether Edlin knew the true purpose," of the phony donation he was asked to process, and Edlin was not charged with any wrongdoing.
While Obama has not received as much as Clinton did from Greenberg Traurig lobbyists, the firm's top executives, who made the decisions to initially hire and eventually fire Abramoff, have given heavily to the Illinois Democrat. Firm founders Larry Hoffman and Robert Traurig, along with current executive director Cesar Alvarez were all included in $14,500 from the firm's executive leadership to Obama.
Clinton also received $7,600 from the firm's general counsel and the chair of its New York office, who appear to have hedged their bets and given to Obama as well.
GOP could launch attacks on Abramoff connections
While Congressional Democrats have made the most hay out of links between their Republican opponents and Abramoff, the GOP has demonstrated its willingness to attack Democrats on the same charges.
In Dec. 2005, the National Republican Senatorial Committee circulated a document entitled "Democrats don't know Jack?" which identified 40 Democratic senators who had received donations from Abramoff and his partners.
In specific '06 campaigns, the very Abramoff-tied lobbyists who gave to Clinton and Obama were highlighted by Republican candidates and their organizations.
For instance, Republican Bob Corker, who defeated Harold Ford, Jr. in a tight Tennessee Senate race in 2006, slammed his opponent for receiving money from Greenberg Traurig attorneys, including Michael Smith and Alan Slomowitz.
"Congressman Ford needs to explain all his dealings with Team Abramoff and acknowledge that his recent denials were completely false and misleading. Tennesseans have the right to the truth about the Congressman's connection to these lobbyists,'" read a Jan. 2006 statement from Corker's campaign after Ford denied receiving money from Abramoff-connected lobbyists.
And even at the local level, Republicans have brought up Abramoff's attorneys' donations to Democratic candidates. In a 2007 race for the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors in Virginia, Republican Gary Blaise charged Democratic incumbent Gerald Connolly with taking money from Joe Reeder, who also gave to Clinton's campaign. Unlike Corker, Blaise did not succeed in defeating his Democratic opponent.
Whether or not Republicans will actually confront the eventual Democratic candidate on donations from lobbyists tied to Abramoff is anybody's guess. McCain's receipt of donations from the firm and its lobbyists might at least cancel out any effort by the GOP to make that move. But if they do, the charge might stick better to Senator Obama, who has declared strongly on the campaign trail that he wants to get lobbyists out of federal elections.
"In terms of how we've been running this campaign, we have seen that I have not taken money from federal registered lobbyists. We are not taking money from PACs," Obama argued in the very first Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina last April.
Obama also has gone a step further, arguing that he has a record of promoting government ethics initiatives within the Senate.
"I'm the only person on this stage who has worked actively just last year passing -- along with Russ Feingold -- some of the toughest ethics reforms since Watergate -- making sure that lobbyists could not provide gifts and meals to congressmen, making sure the bundling of monies by lobbyists was disclosed," he argued in an October 2007 debate in Philadelphia.
Clinton, on the other hand, has stood by her general willingness to accept money from lobbyists.
"A lot of those lobbyists whether you like it not, represent real Americans," Clinton declared at the YearlyKos convention last August, shaking off some jeers from the audience. "They represent nurses, they represent, you know, social workers...and yes, they represent corporations and they employ a lot of people....the idea that somehow a contribution is going to influence you, I just ask you to look at my record, I have been fighting for the same things, my core principles have not changed."
And Clinton's willingness to take money from lobbyists has paid off. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Clinton took in just under a million dollars from political action committees in 2007.