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Lobbyists donate to presidential contenders, who then reject it

Democrats have policies against lobbyist cash

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shown speaking at the Iowa State Fair in August 2019, does not accept lobbyist campaign donations. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., shown speaking at the Iowa State Fair in August 2019, does not accept lobbyist campaign donations. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Democratic presidential contenders — including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Elizabeth Warren — have official policies of rejecting campaign donations from registered federal lobbyists, but lobbyists still donated to all of them in recent months, new disclosures show. 

Some of the K Street cash has already been refunded to the contributors, lobbyists told CQ Roll Call. Other donations may be on their way back, as some of the campaigns said they would return any newly identified contributions from registered federal lobbyists. 

Lobbyists have mostly sat on the sidelines of the Democratic primary money chase with many of the contenders rejecting their dollars as toxic, or taking an anti-corporate, anti-K Street approach to policy matters. Candidates who prohibit donations from registered lobbyists are following the policy of former President Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton during her 2016 bid did not ban contributions from registered lobbyists. 

Even with the growing rejection of lobbyist campaign cash, more than 30 registered lobbyists disclosed donations to Biden during the second half of 2019, according to recently filed semiannual political money reports to the Senate and House required for federally registered lobbyists. At least some had already been refunded by the campaign to the contributors.

For comparison, about the same number of lobbyists (31) reported they had donated to President Donald Trump during the same period, according to the disclosures. The Trump campaign does not bar lobbyists from donating, and among its donors is former Louisiana GOP Rep. Bob Livingston of the Livingston Group. 

Some 16 lobbyists disclosed donations in the last half of 2019 to former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, who quickly eschewed K Street contributions in late April after an initial wave of support from lobbyists.

Among Buttigieg’s donors was former Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, who also donated to Klobuchar, who represents Minnesota in the Senate. Conrad disclosed that he contributed $500 to Buttigieg in November as well as $2,000 to Klobuchar in installments in August, October and December. 

[K Street gets behind Mayor Pete Buttigieg]

Chris Meagher, a spokesperson for the Buttigieg campaign, said in an email that the campaign would look into the donations. “If anyone is [a] federally registered lobbyist we would return the money, if we haven’t already,” Meagher added.

Conrad did not respond to a request for comment. The Klobuchar campaign did not provide a comment.

Even Warren, whose donors must certify that they are “not a federally registered lobbyist,” picked up a handful of small contributions from lobbyists including a disclosed $28 donation from Nora Apter of the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council. 

Such blanket bans on campaign donations from registered lobbyists sometimes loop in those who represent liberal or public interest clients as well as lobbyists for corporations.

Other lobbyists who disclosed giving to Warren’s presidential effort included Steve Holmer of the American Bird Conservancy, who disclosed a $100 contribution, and Monica Montgomery of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, affiliated with the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers, who disclosed $15. 

The Warren campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont does not explicitly prohibit federal lobbyists from donating, but his populist message is unpopular among K Street denizens. Still, six lobbyists — including from the American Civil Liberties Union, a federal employee union and the Friends Committee — reported contributions to his campaign.  

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The Biden campaign appears to be researching its donors and refunding contributions from registered federal lobbyists to comply with its stated policy of not accepting contributions from such individuals.  

One Biden donor, Perrin Brown of the firm Squire Patton Boggs, said he made about $600 worth of donations to the former vice president’s campaign before registering as a federal lobbyist last fall. “I was conscious of the restrictions and I followed it,” he said. 

Even so, he said, the Biden campaign still refunded all his donations after he registered as a lobbyist. “I did not ask for it, nor did I want it,” he added in a phone interview. 

Brown also disclosed donations to Steve Bullock, who did not have a policy about lobbyist donations, and $15 to Buttigieg before registering to lobby. 

The presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet “does not accept contributions from federal lobbyists, and we refund any lobbyist contributions that have been erroneously received,” said a campaign spokeswoman Samantha Greene.

Still, a few K Streeters disclosed donations to the Colorado senator’s presidential effort, filings show. 

They include a $500 contribution dated Dec. 30 from William Oldaker, who was once business partners with Hunter Biden, the son of another presidential candidate, in a firm then known as Oldaker Biden & Belair. Oldaker did not respond to a request for comment.

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