John Podesta, others on Obama transition, have business, lobby ties

By Carol Eisenberg

November 10, 2008 at 1:32pm

It turns out that it’s no easy thing to stock a new presidential administration with policy experts who have never worked as lobbyists - especially when the Democratic party has been out of power for eight years.

And in Washington, if you’re not a lobbyist, chances are your brother or wife or daughter is - or they represent some private interest before the government.

Take John Podesta who is heading up the Obama-Biden transition.

A former Clinton administration chief of staff, Podesta is now the head of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank that lobbies on a variety of issues and solicits donations.

While he has not personally worked as a lobbyist in the last year, according to the New York Times, Podesta formerly lobbied on issues including the war in Iraq, defense department spending, the treatment of military detainees, energy issues, bio-fuels and oil prices.

His brother, Tony, is the chairman of the Podesta Group, a major lobbying firm which the brothers founded together two decades ago.

His sister-in-law, Heather Podesta, founded Heather Podesta + Partners, another major lobbying firm. Between their separate practices, Heather and Tony Podesta (who are married) bring in well more than $1 million a year from clients such as Boeing, CIGNA Corp., Eli Lilly & Co., and U.S. Steel.

Together, they raised more than $500,000 for the 2004 presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. John Kerry, but were barred from attempting to do the same thing for Obama.

Tony Podesta told the Times that he bought his brother out of his firm in 1996 and that the firm banned lobbying John Podesta while he was in government, either in the Clinton White House or as part of the Obama transition.

To comply with the Obama ethics rules, Tony Podesta said jokingly, “I am taking my brother out of my will.”

His wife, Heather, expressed her frustration with Obama’s rule barring lobbyist contribution when she wore a scarlet “L” on her lapel at the Democratic National Convention in Denver this summer

“There’s no spite at all, but a real frustration,” she told the Wall Street Journal during the convention. “You don’t want to be told that your time and money aren’t wanted.”

Of the 18 people that Obama has named to his transition team, half of them are, or once were, registered lobbyists, according to Politico.

Current registrants include Cassandra Q. Butts, the team’s general counsel and a lobbyist for the Center for American Progress; Patrick Gaspard, the associate personnel director and a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union; and Mark Gitenstein, the co-chair of Vice President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team and a lobbyist with the law firm Mayer Brown.

William Daley lobbied for the mortgage finance company, Fannie Mae, in 2005. Christopher Edley represented the Coalition for Asbestos Resolution in 2000.

In a city where policy experts routinely work for lobbying firms between stints in public service, experts say that Obama’s restrictions could hamper the new administration’s ability to hire the best and the brightest.

Former Senator Tom Daschle, a top Obama campaign adviser who is not on the transition team, for instance, but whose name is bandied about for a top White House job, does not engage in activities that require him to register as a lobbyist.

But he does work for a major law and lobbying firm Alston & Bird as a “special policy adviser,” where he sells strategic political advice. His wife, Linda Daschle, is a registered lobbyist specializing in defense and aerospace clients for Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell.

“The problem for Obama is that he will be limiting himself in the expertise he can tap,” Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor told the Times.

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 Read related stories: Lobbying & PR · Obama · Politics · Recent Stories · Think tanks  


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