Gore's lobbyist contributors reap access

By Walter V. Robinson and John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 1/26/2000

ASHINGTON - What's wrong with the government? It's in the vise-like grip of monied special interests and their influential lobbyists who corrupt decision-making, to hear some presidential candidates tell it. Vice President Al Gore, however, has largely abstained from joining that chorus.

A closer look at Gore's political and personal retinue may help explain why: Many of the vice president's close friends, former aides, and senior campaign advisers work as lobbyists and strategists for corporate clients who often get access to the White House and Gore's office - and sometimes get profitable results from regulators who operate under Gore's oversight.

Gore raised $28 million for his presidential campaign last year. That's less than half the $67 million that Texas Governor George W. Bush raised. But Gore, not Bush, is the favorite of Washington lobbyists. They gave Gore more than $600,000 in 1999, and their clients donated millions more to his campaign and the Democratic Party.

To be sure, Washington lobbyists curry favor with both parties, more often to the benefit of Republicans. But Democrats close to Gore have carved out a special, growing niche: representing new-tech and high-tech firms whose prospects often depend on regulatory decisions. And on technology issues, Gore is the administration's gatekeeper.

In two cases, major contributors, with help from lobbyists with close ties to Gore, walked off with windfall decisions from regulators. In 1997, Teligent Inc. was awarded additional microwave bandwidth that by some estimates was worth close to $1 billion. In 1998 and 1999, Teligent contributed more than $200,000 to Democratic Party committees, and officials of the company have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Gore's campaign.

And then there's Network Solutions Inc., which had exclusive rights from the government to award Internet domain names. When other companies demanded that the monopoly be ended, the firm hired Gore's former domestic policy adviser, Greg Simon, as its lobbyist. In a decision worth untold millions to NSI, regulators initially opted for the status quo, leaving NSI in control of domain names. Even a decision last year to open the domain business to competition was shaped to preserve NSI's preeminence.

There is no evidence that Gore himself was involved in either decision. But it is clear that the web of relationships among lobbyists, their clients, the White House and the Gore campaign is mutually beneficial: Friends of Gore are earning millions in fees to represent clients who want access to the White House, or to agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Communications Commission, where Gore has a hand in appointments and policy. And critical to Gore's political success, these friends and their clients have raised millions of dollars for Gore's presidential campaign and Democratic Party committees.

A spokesman for Gore, Chris Lehane, asserted yesterday that the vice president has never made a decision that was not based on the country's best interests. Sometimes, Lehane noted, Gore's decisions work against the interests represented by his friends.

As for the substantial contributions from both Teligent and Network Solutions, Lehane said, ''Al Gore has more than 120,000 contributors, who are proud to support him because of his leadership.''

Gore's official actions and decisions do, as Lehane suggests, sometimes disappoint lobbyists who know him. But that would seem inevitable. On many telecommunications and technology issues nowadays, lobbyists who trace their political lineage to Gore's office can be found representing opposing sides.

Lower-tech industries, some considered untouchable by some lobbyists, have also steered business to Gore's friends. Masterminding Gore's campaign strategy are a longtime friend, Carter Eskew, and a pollster, Harrison Hickman, who had pivotal roles crafting the tobacco industry's $40 million ad campaign against antitobacco legislation. Among Gore's largest campaign donors are Washington lobbying firms that earn millions representing tobacco interests and companies that have pollution issues before the Environmental Protection Agency.

Lehane deflected questions about Eskew's tobacco industry work. ''Carter Eskew is now helping to promote the vice president's antitobacco agenda,'' he said, adding that Eskew is not unlike someone who played for the New York Yankees and then was traded to the Red Sox. ''Now, he's playing for the Red Sox,'' the spokesman said.

Eskew and Hickman did not return telephone calls.

The fact that money buys ''access'' in Washington is nothing new, though the system is now so awash in corporate donations that some candidates, and even some corporate leaders, are crying for change.

Bush, for example, has raised millions of dollars from the industrial, professional, and corporate interests that are regulated by the Texas state government. Senator John McCain, who has elevated the campaign finance reform issue to first-rank status, seeks donations from industries he oversees as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and in one recent case interceded with regulators in a way that benefited a major contributor. And Gore himself has attacked former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley for acting in the Senate on behalf of home state pharmaceutical companies.

''Money follows power. When a company needs someone in a position of power to help them out, it's a very good time for them to take out the checkbook and make a political donation. That's the way Washington works,'' said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Committee for Responsive Politics, which maintains a Web site (www.opensecrets.org), where donations and lobbying revenues can be tracked and compared.

The evident intersection between Gore's fund-raising, lobbying, and the companies queuing up to hire his friends is all the more surprising after the buffeting he took in the 1996 campaign fund-raising scandal.

Back then, Gore was known as the ''solicitor in chief'' for his zealous pursuit of donations from special interest groups targeted by the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Along with Clinton, Gore hosted White House coffees that were followed by substantial contributions. He used his own office to solicit campaign donations. And for months, he maintained that he didn't know that an event he attended at a Buddhist temple in California was a fundraiser. Investigators later discovered that the event was used to move cash from Asia into the campaign.

This time around, Gore's contributions are carefully vetted. Nonetheless, much of the money he has raised come from officers of companies whose interests coincide with Gore's areas of official responsibility.

What's more, lobbying reports examined by the Globe show that Gore's office is often listed as a lobbying stop for Gore's friends, on issues that include telecommunications, computer technology, tax credits, biotechnology, drug company concerns, and environmental quality disputes. Since 1996, the television networks alone have spent several million dollars on lobbyists on issues like the ''V'' chip, which limits access to violent TV programming, with Gore's office getting much of the lobbying attention.

Of the 19 companies whose executives have donated the most in individual contributions to Gore's campaign, seven are Washington lobbying firms. Moreover, lobbying and campaign finance records show that 15 of the 19 firms have also made unrestricted ''soft money'' contributions to Democratic Party committees during Clinton's second term of office. The total: $3,376,690.

One highly successful lobbyist, Tony Podesta, even has a Web site that invites readers to conclude that he wields considerable influence at the White House - which friends say he does, sometimes aggressively and often effectively. On the site, Podesta's firm boasts how he ''gained the ear'' of the White House on a key tax issue and arranged meetings with Clinton for broadcast executives and sessions with ''key policy makers.'' The site also includes a trade publication news article describing Podesta's late-night role helping the White House plot anti-impeachment strategy.

Podesta's brother, John, has been White House chief of staff since November 1998. Podesta.com, the company where John and Tony once toiled together, has 53 lobbying clients, and revenues of about $8 million last year, up from about $6 million in 1998.

In an interview, Tony Podesta said he sometimes does not go near the White House for weeks at a time. But there have been times, he said, when he spends every day in a given week at the White House. But, he said, ''I've gotten no client into the White House who the White House didn't want there.'' And Podesta said he never contacts his brother on behalf of any client.

''It's not like we helped elect Bill Clinton and Al Gore and then hung out a shingle,'' Tony Podesta said. ''We started this business when George Bush was president, and we'll still be here if his son becomes president.''

Gore did not invent the Internet, as he once claimed. But the industries driving the new economy often treat him as if he had. And with good reason: No one in government, arguably not even President Clinton, has more influence than Gore over the direction of the technology revolution. And some of Gore's friends have his ear on those issues, even as they earn millions for advising companies eager to affect those decisions.

For example, Roy Neel, a close friend and former chief of staff to Gore, is president of the US Telephone Association, which represents the interests of the Bell operating companies in Washington. In 1998, Neel was paid $1.2 million by USTA, according to a survey by the National Journal.

USTA, in turn, retains another former chief of staff to Gore, Peter Knight, as its lobbyist, for $200,000 a year. Knight, who has long been Gore's most prodigious - and controversial - fund-raiser, is also Bell Atlantic's chief lobbyist, at another $280,000 a year. Two months ago, Knight took a leave from his lobbying firm as a way to mute criticism of his multiple roles.

One member of a lobbying firm, speaking on condition that neither she nor her firm be identified, said she was troubled by overtures to potential high-technology clients.

Often, she said, some of those with Gore connections present themselves as advisers to the president and vice president, note that they frequently attend White House meetings, and even say that they can get Gore to appear at client company events. Even if they cannot affect the outcome, she said, Gore's friends can claim access to inside information from the White House staff. ''That in itself is very valuable to clients,'' she said.

Andrew Schwartzman, president of the Media Access Project, a public interest law firm that specializes in technology issues, said he is troubled by what he calls the ''monetarization of politics,'' but said he sees no evidence that the outcome is tipped in cases involving Gore's friends.

Part of the reason: Both sides in any major telecommunications dispute are often represented by lobbyists with ties to the vice president. ''They nullify each other,'' Schwartzman said.

Gore, Schwartzman concluded, ''makes his own decisions. But the vice president wants to see his friends be successful and wealthy. And he wants them to contribute to his campaign.''

Two recent issues, perhaps more than any others, illustrate how easily political money fuels the perception that special interests exert undue influence on policy.

The first involved the recent Clinton administration decision to reverse course and permit the export of high-end encryption technology. Initially, the White House had agreed with the Justice and Defense departments that US national security interests could be damaged by such exports.

Jack Quinn, a former Gore chief of staff and Clinton legal counsel, was paid at least $680,000 by Americans for Computer Privacy, cobbled together to get the ban lifted.

John Podesta, Clinton's chief of staff, said yesterday that Quinn's lobbying did not affect the decision. What turned the administration around, Podesta said, was a realization that technological breakthroughs had eclipsed longstanding policy.

One industry official with intimate knowledge of the decision supported Podesta's explanation. But the official, who declined to be quoted by name but is sympathetic to Gore, said presidential campaign fund-raising loomed over the discussions of the case.

The computer industry, the official explained, was united on the issue, at a time when Gore was competing mightily with Bush for Silicon Valley political contributions. To have the administration at odds with the industry on the issue, he said, could have transformed more of the high-tech world into Bush supporters.

The other issue involved lobbyist Tom Downey, a onetime Democratic House colleague who is sometimes described as Gore's closest friend - and the only lobbyist who Lehane acknowledged has lobbied Gore personally on issues. Downey clients include the Merck drug company, which according to lobbying records gave Downey an unspecified number of stock options in 1993, the year that Gore took office as vice president.

Starting late in 1996, Merck led a drug industry offensive designed to prevent South Africa from implementing legislation to acquire patented AIDS drugs at below-market cost for the 3.2 million South Africans who are HIV-positive. A day's dosage of the drug cocktail often costs more than a worker there makes in a week.

Records show that Downey lobbied Gore's office and Podesta's firm lobbied the White House, State Department, and the US trade representative for the drug industry.

The Clinton administration, where Gore heads a US-South Africa relations group, backed the drug companies, even imposing trade sanctions on the country, freezing any action for more than two years. A State Department memorandum, although noting that the United States understood the need for the medicine, declared: ''The US government nonetheless made clear that it will defend the legitimate interests and rights of US pharmaceutical firms.''

The drug firms have funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars into national Democratic campaign coffers since Clinton became president, noted James Love, the director of the Consumer Project on Technology, which has pressed the administration to take a humanitarian approach to the issue.

Last fall, after US AIDS activists had embarrassed Gore several times by disrupting his campaign events over the issue, the White House altered course, negotiating a settlement that will allow South Africa to acquire the drugs at low cost.

Yesterday, Gore spokesman Lehane cited the issue as one on which Gore took a position counter to the interests of a friend's corporate client. But Love said the lengthy delays prompted by the administration's support for the drug industry have had tragic consequences.

''It's morally repugnant to help campaign contributors in a situation like this,'' Love said. ''How else can you explain why the US would impede access to cheap medicine in Africa, which is in the midst of a health crisis of historic proportions? This is not something that makes you proud to be an American.''

Kathleen Hennrikus of the Globe Staff contributed to this report. Walter Robinson's email address is w_robinson@globe.com. John Aloysius Farrell's email address is j_farrell@globe.com.