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Obama connection to Sidley Austin still strong

By Laurie Bennett

May 20, 2012 at 9:06am

To those outside legal circles, Sidley Austin is probably best known as the Chicago law firm where Barack Obama and Michelle Obama met.

The future president was an intern in 1989. The future first lady was an associate. Barack Obama turned down a job offer at the end of his internship, Michelle Obama left the firm, and the two married in 1992.

Two decades later, Sidley Austin is faring well under the Obama administration.

Current and former attorneys at the firm receiving presidential appointments include:

  • Virginia A. Seitz - Seitz was a partner at Sidley Austin before being named assistant attorney general in 2011.
  • Gary Scott Feinerman - A former solicitor general of Illinois and clerk to Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Feinerman is now a federal judge with the District Court of the Northern District of Illinois.
  • David B. Barlow - A partner at the firm from 2006 to 2010, Barlow is now U.S. attorney for the Utah district.
  • John G. Levi - A current partner and a bundler for the Obama 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, Levi chairs the Legal Services Corporation, a governmental corporation that funds legal aid for the poor.
  • Christopher P. Lu - After working as a litigation associate at Sidley Austin, Lu moved to government. He was legislative director to then-Sen. Barack Obama and is now the president’s cabinet secretary.
  • Kathryn B. Thomson - Thomson, who is married to Lu, worked for 19 years at Sidley Austin. She became counselor to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in 2009, and was appointed chief counsel of the Federal Aviation Administration in 2012.
  • Michael Strautmanis - Like Lu, Strautmanis worked with Obama before 2009. He was chief counsel and deputy chief of staff during Obama’s stint in the Senate. He previously practiced complex litigation and employment law at Sidley Austin.

Newton Minow, senior counsel at the law firm and chairman of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration, has multiple connections to the White House. Minow met Barack Obama through his daughter Martha, who was Obama’s professor. She urged her father to hire the young law student.

As president, Obama appointed Martha Minow, now dean of Harvard Law School, to the Legal Services Corporation. He named another Minow daughter, Mary, to the National Museum Library Services Board.

Sidley Austin has been embraced by Washington in more ways than federal appointments.

The firm has landed federal contracts totalling nearly $12 million since 2009.

In the prior four years, during the George W. Bush administration, the firm’s federal contracts totaled $1.4 million, according to data on USASpending.gov.

Sidley Austin also lobbies for clients with big stakes in Washington, including the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Bayer HealthCare and Grifols, a global healthcare company. In 2011, the firm had 21 registered lobbyists in the capital and pulled in nearly $3 million in lobby fees.

Not surprisingly, political contributions from people at Sidley Austin lean toward the Obama camp.

Elections data analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics show that Sidley Austin employees had given $243,486 to Obama’s re-election bid through late April. Employees gave less than $23,000 to Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Levi isn’t the only Obama bundler at the firm. Partner Thomas Cole raised money for the 2008 campaign.

Nevertheless, Sidley Austin is not an all-Obama, all-the-time law firm. Partner Charles Douglas raised funds for John McCain in 2008. This time around, he has contributed to both Romney and Tim Pawlenty.

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