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Key McCain, Clinton fundraisers lobby for foreign governments

SHOWCASE | February 26, 2008

A Q&A with Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Evans gives a glimpse at how CIR works, and describes a joint CIR/ABCNews.com project pointing out that some of John McCain’s and Hillary Clinton’s leading fundraisers are also lobbyists for foreign governments.

By Nonna Gorilovskaya

Nonna Gorilovskaya, a researcher for the Nieman Watchdog Project, interviewed reporter Will Evans of the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). Evans co-wrote a story on top fundraisers for Hillary Clinton and John McCain who are also lobbyists for foreign governments. The article and accompanying interactive graphic “Web of Influence” appeared on ABCNews.com in February.

How does the CIR-ABC cooperation work?

CIR is a nonprofit news organization, and we do our own investigations with independent funding that might not otherwise get done. We then partner with established media outlets to publish the story. I was doing the reporting for the story and came up with some research and pitched it to ABCNews.com. I worked with a reporter there named Avni Patel, and we published on ABC.        

What made you look into this story?

I am assigned to cover campaign finance. How the system works now is that any one person can only give a couple of thousand dollars to any one candidate. The idea there is that it will limit the amount of influence that you can have on a candidate. But the result of that is that big fundraisers become ever more important. They end up representing $100,000 or $200,000 to that candidate because they can raise that money from their friends and colleagues. So the question is: What interests do they represent? I took a list of top fundraisers compiled by [the nonprofit advocacy group] Public Citizen. I have been looking at those bundlers in a number of different ways, but I thought to run their names through the Justice Department database of lobbyists who work for foreign governments.

Will Evans (Photo by Carrie Ching)

What did you find out?

We found that both Senator Clinton and Senator McCain have top fundraisers who are also lobbyists for foreign countries, and that those lobbyists help their clients gain access to those senators.

Can you give some examples for Clinton and McCain?

Clinton has two top fundraisers [John Merrigan and Matthew “Mac” Bernstein] who have raised at least $100,000 each, and they both work for clients such as the government of Turkey, which is trying to kill the Armenian Genocide resolution and also the government of Dubai, which is trying to defend against accusations of child slavery. Their firm [DLA Piper] arranged meetings with Clinton and her staff on both of those issues.

On the McCain side, you have his national finance chair Thomas Loeffler. He is a long-time lobbyist for Saudi Arabia, and his firm has collected millions of dollars from Saudi Arabia. Loeffler personally set up a meeting between McCain and then Saudi ambassador to the United States [Prince Turki al-Faisal] in 2006.

What about the fundraisers for Barack Obama and Mike Huckabee?

Obama has a policy against accepting money from registered lobbyists or having any registered lobbyists as his bundlers. We went through the entire list of his fundraisers anyway and didn’t find anyone.

Mike Huckabee—there is not as much known about his top fundraisers because he does not disclose. We went through what we knew and couldn’t find anything. Mitt Romney—we found one fundraiser who was a lobbyists for a foreign country. [Rudy] Giuliani—we found two. [John] Edwards—we did not find any. Even though they are all out of the race, it gives you a sense that McCain and Clinton had the most. Clinton had six. McCain had five.

Anything that surprised you as you were working on the story?

The amount of detail that you could get out of the Justice Department database surprised me. It is a good tool for reporters. It includes much more information than the records for domestic lobbyists. This goes back to concerns about Nazi propaganda. The Foreign Agents Registration Act [1938] was passed, with tougher rules for anyone lobbying for a foreign country. So every lobbyist for a foreign country has to file these statements saying who they met with, what they did, why they did it, what they’re getting paid exactly. With domestic lobbyists, they may be doing the same thing, but you don’t know because their disclosure is much more limited.

Do you think that there are more cases like this?

The Republican candidates so far have not disclosed all of their fundraisers. This is an issue that campaign finance watchdogs are upset about, that there are no mandatory disclosures of bundlers. So the Democrats—Clinton, Obama and Edwards—all disclosed their lists voluntarily. The Republicans have so far not done that. However, some of the Republican candidates like McCain name people to their finance committees or they become a state finance chair or something, so we know those people are fundraisers. But there may be many other fundraisers out there.

Are you working on following this story up? 

Not necessarily in connection to the foreign countries. I filed some FOIA requests to see what the lobbyists were lobbying the federal agencies about, so maybe if something comes back. I am moving on to continuing to look at the role of money in the presidential election.

What kind of response have you received so far?

Not much response. It is one of those frustrating things. You can put the information out there and provide some kind of scrutiny but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything more will happen. I have heard from people who are involved in political fundraising that it makes sense to connect these dots.

Anything else that people should keep in mind?

I think it is important to realize that there are mega fundraisers out there who are helping to bankroll this election, and they aren’t just people who like a candidate. Sometimes they are, but other times they represent specific interests and agendas, and it is important to follow that even past the election—what they get for their role in fundraising and the access that may come with that.

Will Evans is a staff reporter covering campaign finance for CIR. Prior to joining CIR in 2005, Evans was a reporter at The Sacramento Bee for three years, where his reporting won first place in the Best of the West competition. Evans has also written for the national Chilean newspaper La Tercera and provided research for a CBS Evening News series on government surveillance. Email: wevans@cironline.org

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