Friday, May 22, 2009

Blunt, Boehner Share Broad Network of Lobbyist Ties With DeLay

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By Jonathan D. Salant and Laura Litvan

Representatives Roy Blunt of Missouri and John Boehner of Ohio have been among the key intermediaries between Republican lawmakers and lobbyists since their party took control of the U.S. Congress in 1995.

Now, with both men vying to succeed Representative Tom DeLay as House majority leader, those ties may loom as an issue.

Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican, said concerns that the two men are too close to Washington's K Street lobbying corridor may encourage a dark-horse candidate to run against them. ``We have three weeks until this election, and a lot can happen between now and then,'' Flake said.

DeLay's Jan. 7 decision to permanently relinquish his leadership post came after former aides were mentioned in a plea-bargain agreement with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff. House Republicans, who will hold a new vote the week of Jan. 30, have pledged to address ethics issues, including a possible overhaul of lobbying rules.

Blunt, 55, and DeLay, 58, share a network of ties as extensive as any in Congress, including links to lobbyists.

Blunt, who was tapped by then-House Republican Whip DeLay in 1999 to be his chief deputy, has been acting majority leader since Texan DeLay stepped down after being indicted in September on unrelated money-laundering charges in Austin.

Both men's political action committees employ Jim Ellis, who was indicted along with DeLay. DeLay's PAC gave Blunt's committee a $150,000 donation in 2000, and Blunt's PAC gave $10,000 to DeLay's non-profit foundation that same year. Both lawmakers' PACs have employed Alexander Strategy Group, a Georgetown-based firm whose partners include former Abramoff and DeLay associates.

Liaison With Lobbyists

Blunt also has served as the Republicans' official liaison to K Street. In one meeting at the Capitol last April, he rounded up some 200 lobbyists to talk with top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, about the party's agenda.

Boehner, 56, who has been in Congress since 1991, has said he and DeLay have had conflicts in the past, and other lawmakers say they are not close. Even so, Boehner has strong connections to lobbyists: He met weekly with leading lobbyists to enlist their support and discuss strategy during his four years as House Republican Conference chairman, from 1995 to 1998.

Sallie Mae

The top donor to Boehner's leadership PAC in 2003-2004 was SLM Corp., the Reston, Virginia-based student-loan company better known as Sallie Mae. SLM contributed $65,170 to Boehner's Freedom Project, more than twice as much as the second-biggest donor, New York-based Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The money came as the House Education and Workforce Committee, which Boehner chairs, prepared to write new legislation governing student loans.

In 1995, Boehner handed out campaign checks from the tobacco industry to members on the House floor at a time when lawmakers were considering eliminating a tobacco subsidy.

Representative Chris Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said he believes that Boehner is even closer to lobbyists than Blunt. ``The problem John faces is that he's so close to K Street; that's the challenge he's got,'' said Shays, who's backing Blunt.

Boehner's office declined to comment on lawmakers' concerns about his ties to lobbyists.

Jessica Boulanger, a spokeswoman for Blunt, said the lawmaker has met regularly with lobbyists because it's part of his job.

``In his role as whip, Congressman Blunt welcomed assistance from any group, from lobbyists to labor unions to family groups to farmers, willing to support House Republicans' agenda,'' Boulanger said.

``He is 100 percent committed to swift enactment of lobbying-reform legislation and pledges to make it a top priority if elected leader,'' Boulanger said.

`K Street Project'

A decade ago, DeLay orchestrated the ``K Street Project,'' an effort to get trade associations and lobbying firms to hire Republicans and raise money for the party. Blunt, who was elected the party's vote-counting whip in 2003, worked to get the same groups to help push the Republican agenda.

Beginning in 1999, DeLay tapped Blunt to harness Washington's lobbyist community into a force that could help win votes on issues ranging from a $1.3 trillion tax cut to a $720 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Blunt was DeLay's ambassador to the community, said Gregg Hartley, Blunt's former chief of staff and now vice chairman of Cassidy & Associates, Washington's second-biggest lobbying firm by revenue.

Reaching Out

``We formalized the process of reaching out to them,'' Hartley said. ``You could talk to Tom or Tom's people, or Roy or Roy's people. It was all the same.''

While they helped push through the Republican legislative agenda, those ties could be a disadvantage in the post-Abramoff era, said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican.

``Roy is going to have to convince every member of the conference that he is willing to break with the old ways of doing things,'' LaHood said of Blunt. ``It looks to the public like K Street is running everything.''

Blunt's name has come up in connection with the Abramoff investigation. In May 2003, he wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Gale Norton opposing a casino for an Indian tribe that would have rivaled one operated by an Abramoff client. A month later, Blunt signed a similar letter along with DeLay, House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Chief Deputy Whip Eric Cantor. Blunt said on Jan. 4 he would donate to charity $8,500 he received from Abramoff.

Tobacco Link

Blunt also has links to the tobacco industry. In 2002, he tried to insert language into a bill creating the Homeland Security Department that would have aided Philip Morris Cos., now Altria Group Inc., by making it harder to sell cigarettes over the Internet, the Washington Post reported. Blunt later married Altria lobbyist Abigail Perlman.

New York-based Altria, whose Philip Morris unit is the nation's largest tobacco company, is Blunt's biggest career campaign donor, giving $202,909 to his campaign committee and leadership PACs through 2004, according to a review of campaign- finance disclosures.

``This slate is not going to be the new broom to sweep clean,'' said Celia Wexler, vice president for advocacy at Common Cause, a Washington-based group that's pushing for tougher ethics laws. ``There's no indication that Boehner and Blunt have ever bucked this way of looking at things or doing business. They have been part of the K Street clique.''

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