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Relatives of U.S. lawmakers lobby on bills before Congress

Despite changes in rules to improve ethics, dozens are paid to influence bills that their family members submit or shape

by David S. Fallis and Dan Keating

The Washington Post

In 2007, in the wake of the biggest lobbying scandal in decades, Congress limited the ability of family members to lobby their relatives in the House of Representatives or Senate. But it declined to ban the practice entirely.

Since then, 56 relatives of lawmakers have been paid to influence Congress. More than 500 firms have spent more than $400 million on lobbying teams that include the relatives of members, according to a Washington Post analysis of disclosure forms.

The Post analysis shows that the interests of lawmakers and their relatives have overlapped to varying degrees on bills before Congress. In the past six years, for example, 36 congressional relatives — including spouses, children, siblings, parents and in-laws — have been paid to influence 250 bills passing through their family members’ congressional committees or sponsored by the members.

All of this is legal under the rules Congress has written for itself.

That lawmakers have relatives working as lobbyists has been widely reported over the years. Lawmakers have consistently said their relatives don’t lobby them directly. The 2007 overhaul prohibited spouses from direct lobbying but gave other relatives more leeway.

For the first time since the changes, however, The Post’s examination reveals the extent to which relatives are still paid to work on issues before their family members.

“It’s a technique of throwing money at the feet of the congressman who can influence my business,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance and government ethics lobbyist for Public Citizen.

The family ties are another example of the intersection of lawmakers’ public and private interests, which The Post has been documenting in a yearlong series. Earlier stories revealed lawmakers who had secured earmarks for projects near properties they own, traded in stocks of companies that were lobbying on bills before them and pushed legislation affecting industries in which they had financial interests.

To examine lobbying, the newspaper mined a range of public documents, including records of lawmakers’ family connections compiled by Legistorm.com, a nonpartisan website that tracks congressional disclosures. The Post culled thousands of quarterly lobbyist disclosure reports and tracked legislation through the House and Senate to identify instances in which relatives were paid to lobby on matters that came before their congressional relatives.

In the mid-2000s, the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal helped pressure lawmakers to pass ethics revisions. The 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act imposed disclosure rules on earmarks, banned gifts from lobbyists and, for the first time, addressed the behavior of lobbyists related to lawmakers.

The changes restrict — but do not prohibit — relatives of members from lobbying Congress. In the House, the overhaul does prohibit people from lobbying their lawmaker spouses or their offices. In the Senate, the rules went further and prohibited spouses and all immediate family members from being paid to lobby anyone in the Senate.

But the laws left a lot of space for relatives.

For example, in the Senate, a son-in-law is free to lobby his in-laws. In the House, lawmakers may be lobbied by their children and parents.

“I was arguing there should be an absolute ban,” Holman said. Lawmakers had no interest. “The reform that was passed is so narrow, it is easily side-stepped.”

Most relatives — 48 of the 56 — began their careers as congressional lobbyists only after they had family members elected to the House or Senate, records show.

Several lawmakers contacted by The Post said they impose walls between their public duties and their family ties. They also maintained that their votes were not influenced when companies hired their relatives.

The father of Rep. William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, was hired to lobby on two bills that his son helped shape, records show. Under the 2007 changes, fathers like Clay Sr. are not prohibited from lobbying their sons in the House.

“No member of my family has ever discussed with me, or attempted to influence my actions regarding any pending legislation,” Clay said in a statement provided by his spokesman. “Many retired members of Congress register as federal lobbyists, as allowed under the law. I would never tolerate or engage in any situation that presented even the appearance of a conflict of interest, or any violation of the rules of the U.S. House.”

The younger Clay, who in 2001 succeeded his father in office, cosponsored a proposed law in 2010 that would give investors the right to sue people who help others commit securities fraud. His father, William Lacy Clay Sr., was hired to lobby on behalf of attorneys who bring investor lawsuits. The group paid $220,000 to the firm that employed Clay and three others to lobby on the bill and other issues.

The elder Clay did not respond to requests for comment.

Combining lobbying and legislating is a family tradition for Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, a Missouri Republican. Her father was executive director of the Republican National Committee. In the 1970s, decades before she entered Congress, she married a lobbyist, Bill Emerson. He got elected to the House in 1980 to represent rural southern Missouri. While her husband served in Congress, Jo Ann Emerson lobbied for the restaurant and insurance industries.

When Bill Emerson died of cancer in 1996, Jo Ann went from lobbying to holding her husband’s seat and has kept it since for a 32-year family run. After the Republicans’ takeover of the House in 2010, Jo Ann became chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles the budgets of the Treasury Department, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service and other agencies. She also serves on the appropriations subcommittee that budgets the Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department.

As she serves in Congress, her daughters have continued the family tradition of lobbying.

Older daughter Tori Emerson Barnes has lobbied since 2005 for General Motors. Younger daughter Katharine Emerson began lobbying for Monsanto the year her mother became subcommittee chairman, records show.

Jo Ann Emerson was re-elected with 72 percent of the vote in November, but announced last month that she is leaving office to run a lobbying organization, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Her predecessor, another former congressman, received a compensation package of more than $1.6 million in 2010. She is not leaving until January or February, so for two months she is in the unusual position of serving in Congress while already having an outside job lined up with an organization that lobbies Congress.

The 2007 changes on family lobbying put no restrictions at all on the daughters of House members. Katharine Emerson and Tori Emerson Barnes are allowed to lobby their mother and her staff and her colleagues. Even if they don’t lobby their mother, the companies that are paying them have full teams of lobbyists that regularly seek to influence bills pending before her.

In 2011, Monsanto spent $7.4 million on its 21-member lobbying team, according to lobbying disclosure reports. In the period that Katharine Emerson has been on the team, Monsanto has reported lobbying on two bills cosponsored by Rep. Emerson and seven others that went through her committee and subcommittees.

Since 2007, Tori Emerson Barnes’ team of General Motors lobbyists has tried to influence 15 bills cosponsored by Emerson and another 18 that have gone through her committee and subcommittees — including the financial bailout that included General Motors, measures on fuel-economy standards and defense appropriations. GM spent $5.4 million in 2011 with 58 lobbyists.

Asked about the possibility of a conflict of interest, Rep. Emerson and the firms, speaking on behalf of her daughters, said they all employ a higher standard of ethics than Congress mandates. They all say they forbid any contact between lobbyists and their family members in office.

“I have never voted or acted on an issue as a result of Monsanto’s or General Motors’ support or opposition to it,” Rep. Emerson said in a statement released by her office. “I do not know on what issues my daughters work for their employers. We never, ever discuss their work. My daughters do not influence my opinion of, or action on, any issue before Congress.”

“GM’s own strict conflict-of-interest standards prohibit Ms. Barnes from lobbying Congresswoman Emerson,” said Greg Martin, a GM spokesman.

“Any employee of Monsanto may not lobby their own relatives, a relative’s office or on any legislation affiliated with the relative or the committees on which they serve,” said company spokesman Lee Quarles. “We understand that our policy is more than the law requires.”

In 2007, Sen. Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, introduced a bill to compel the federal government to give the Nevada city of Henderson 500 acres (200 hectares) near an airport for development.

While the bill was pending, Henderson spent $240,000 over two years for two Washington lawyers to lobby on it and other issues, records show.

One of the lawyers was Steven Barringer, Reid’s son-in-law.

The 2007 overhaul imposed no limits on who Barringer, as a son-in-law, may lobby in Congress.

Barringer is married to Reid’s daughter, Lana, and has lobbied Congress since 1999, representing dozens of clients. Barringer has lobbied on legislation for Henderson since 2001, including two prior versions of Reid’s land bill that failed to pass, records show.

Reid’s 2007 bill to transfer land to the city died in that session, but Reid — the Senate majority leader and the most powerful man in the chamber — ensured that the provision was in the 2009 Omnibus Public Land Management Act, which did become law. The city paid another $60,000 to Barringer’s firm, records show.

A month after the land act passed, Reid introduced another bill to convey 2,400 acres (970 hectares) of land in Clark and Nye counties to the state for college campuses. Henderson, which is located in Clark County, spent $180,000 over 18 months for lobbying by Barringer’s firm. The proposal died that session but was reintroduced last year in Congress.

In the just-ended Congress, Reid sponsored another law that would convey 948 acres (384 hectares) at an abandoned mine site to the city for redevelopment. Henderson has spent $60,000 for lobbying by Barringer and his colleague on the bill and other issues.

Barringer did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment. His law firm, Holland & Hart, also declined to comment.

A spokeswoman for Reid said Barringer does not lobby the lawmaker’s office.

“We have a long-standing office policy that strictly bars any member of the staff’s family or the Senator’s family from lobbying our office on behalf of their clients,” Kristen Orthman wrote.

“That policy applies in this case.”

Orthman said that these bills have had bipartisan support from most, if not all, of the Nevada delegation.

That Barringer and one of Reid’s sons lobbied Congress was included in an extensive 2003 Los Angeles Times report. The newspaper reported that Reid’s legislation or actions in office stood to benefit special interests employing his family members.

Since 2004, Barringer has continued to work for Henderson and has been hired to lobby for mining, gambling and developer clients on issues including three bills cosponsored by his father-in-law, records indicate.

Last year, Henderson ended its government affairs contract with Barringer and his firm because of budget cuts, according to a letter the city sent the firm.

One of Reid’s sons, Josh Reid, was named Henderson’s city attorney in 2011. Through a city spokeswoman, he declined to comment.

In 2007, Reid was the sponsor of the Senate ethics bill that included the lobbying changes. In a news release, Reid said the law would “deliver to the American people a government as good and honest as the people it represents.”