January 26, 2006
LaHood reduces ties to lobbyists
Stops having them organize fundraisers
By DORI MEINERT
COPLEY NEWS SERVICE
WASHINGTON - Against the backdrop of the current lobbying scandal, U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood said Wednesday he is ending his use of lobbyists to organize fundraisers.
For the past 18 months, the Peoria Republican who represents part of Springfield, has included 23 lobbyists on his campaign steering committee, asking them to raise money for both his re-election campaign and his brief exploration of a run for governor.
In a letter last week, LaHood notified the lobbyists that he no longer required their services and has hired a professional fundraiser.
"In the past, we have asked each of you to sponsor an event and commit to raise money on my behalf," LaHood's letter stated. "That has been a perfectly legal way to raise funds. ... However, I believe this could be perceived as a special relationship and I am confident all of us want to avoid this perception."
In an interview, LaHood said he wants to eliminate any appearance of impropriety as he joins Republican leaders in promoting lobbying and other ethics reform.
"I just felt it was the right standard to set. I felt it was the right message to send," said LaHood, whose letter was first reported in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call.
"What we need to do is make sure that as members of Congress, that when we promote lobby-ethics reform, we're promoting the idea that lobbyists don't run things in Washington, which they don't," LaHood said.
Republicans need to "take quick action as a party to show we are serious about ethics reform or risk losing the majority," LaHood said in the letter.
Lobbyists who received the letter included: William Lane of Caterpillar Inc.; former Rep. Michael Flanagan of Flanagan Consulting; Peter Madigan of Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart; Tim James of the International Union of Operating Engineers; Charles Bruse of Allstate Insurance Co.; Julie Brauer of the Chicago Board of Trade; and Jerry Woods of Northrop Grumman Corp.
LaHood couldn't immediately say how much the lobbyists had raised for him at events they sponsored. His congressional campaign committee collected $406,847 in the first nine months of last year, according to Federal Election Commission data. He also raised $465,347 in six months for his bid for governor.
LaHood said he still plans to solicit contributions from lobbyists.
"I'm going to raise money in Washington, and if these people want to come to it, they are more than welcome to come, as long as they stay within the (contribution) limits and we report it," LaHood said.
A spokesman for Common Cause, a group working for lobbying reform, called LaHood's move a step in the right direction.
"If lobbyists are part of the fundraising apparatus for a member of Congress, then they will have a special status for that member," said Mike Surrusco, director of the group's ethics campaign. "The member relies on them for not just their contributions, but all the contributions of people they have organized, which could be a substantial amount."
However, LaHood said his use of lobbyists to raise funds for his campaigns has never left him feeling beholden to any special interests.
"Caterpillar is the No. 1 employer in my district. I pay attention to them when they talk to me," LaHood said. "I feel beholden to the people who've elected me to the job. Those are the people who I feel beholden to. If someone comes to me with an issue, I certainly will listen to them. I try to look at all sides and then decide what's in the best interests of the people I represent."
There was no immediate comment from Caterpillar.
Flanagan, one of the lobbyists who sponsored several fundraisers for LaHood, said he respects the lawmaker's decision.
"We're personal friends, which is why I help him. This is something that lobbying reform ignores. A lot of these guys are personal friends of mine. You wouldn't think twice about having dinner at your best friend's house or them having dinner at your house, and I can't do that. It's irksome," said Flanagan, a Republican from Chicago who was elected to one term in Congress in 1994, the same year as LaHood.
Flanagan said he doubts the new approach will cause a financial hardship for LaHood.
"People who give to Ray give to him because he's a good member, and they're not going to stop giving just because I stop buying cocktails. For good members like Ray, the fundraisers are a convenience. It's a way to get it over and done with in a single pass and to get other people to help you make these phone calls," Flanagan said.
Peter Madigan, another lobbyist, also has a longtime personal friendship with LaHood. They met 18 years ago when both were congressional staffers. Madigan has worked frequently with Caterpillar on trade issues. One of his clients, The Justice Project, provided information on inequities in the nation's death penalty system and supported a bill authored by LaHood that provided more DNA testing and better legal assistance for death row inmates.
"Ray LaHood cares first and foremost about the institution," Madigan said. "Ray is going to take whatever action that he thinks benefits the institution."
Both parties in Congress have proposed lobbying reforms after former lobbyist Jack Abramoff's guilty plea to bribery and other charges.
LaHood said he supports extending a ban on lobbying by former members of Congress and their staffers from one to two years and increasing enforcement of lobbying-disclosure rules. While he's taken trips funded by private groups and found them beneficial, LaHood said he would support a ban on such trips if it's included in the House bill.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Plano, supports a ban on privately paid trips.
But LaHood strongly defended his right to seek "earmarks," funds designated for specific projects in his district, which some lobbying-reform advocates seek to eliminate.
"They came from people in my district who were trying to solve problems, who need money to initiate programs, and it's money well spent," said LaHood, a member of the House Appropriations Committee.
Dori Meinert can be reached at (202) 737-7686 or firstname.lastname@example.org.