WASHINGTON — While pledging to turn down donations from lobbyists themselves, Sen. Barack Obama raised more than $1 million in the first three months of his presidential campaign from law firms and companies that have major lobbying operations in the nation's capital.
Portraying himself as a new-style politician determined to reform Washington, Obama makes his policy clear in fundraising invitations, stating that he takes no donations from "federal lobbyists." His aides announced last week he was returning $43,000 to lobbyists who donated to his campaign.
But the Illinois Democrat's policy of shunning money from lobbyists registered to do business on Capitol Hill does not extend to lawyers whose partners lobby there.
Nor does the ban apply to corporations that have major lobbying operations in Washington. And the prohibition does not extend to lobbyists who ply their trade in such state capitals as Springfield, Ill.; Tallahassee, Fla.; and Sacramento, though some deal with national clients and issues.
"Clearly, the distinction is not that significant," said Stephen Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that focuses on campaign issues.
"He gets an asterisk that says he is trying to be different," Weissman said. "But overall, the same wealthy interests are funding his campaign as are funding other candidates, whether or not they are lobbyists."
A relative newcomer to national politics, Obama stunned the political world by raising $25.7 million in the first three months of the year, all but matching money raised by his main rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).
Obama attained the lofty mark even as he decried the fundraising system. In his Internet appeals for small donations, Obama played up populist themes of reform.
"It may sound strange for a presidential candidate to launch a fundraising drive that isn't about dollars. But our democracy shouldn't be about money, and it's time our campaigns weren't either," he said in one such pitch.
In another e-mail seeking money, Obama decried the "special interest industry in Washington" and warned it would spend more money than ever to "try to own our political process."
"We're not going to play that game," the e-mail said.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton said Obama instituted the ban on lobbyist money in reaction to public anger over the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal. Burton also acknowledged the policy has its flaws.
"This ban is part of Obama's best effort to address the problem of money in politics," Burton said in a statement. "It isn't a perfect solution to the problem and it isn't even a perfect symbol. But it does reflect that Obama shares the urgency of the American people to change the way Washington operates."
Obama said in his first-quarter financial report that he received money from 104,000 donors, twice as many as Clinton, suggesting a disproportionate number of small contributions. But the Campaign Finance Institute said Obama still received 68% of his money from donations of $1,000 or more, compared with 86% for Clinton.
Rules for lobbyists
Lobbyists generally are paid by corporations, unions and other interest groups to shape public policy by making regular contact with government officials. They must register with both houses of Congress, and make public disclosures identifying their clients and the amounts they are paid.
Some of the most influential players, lawyers and consultants among them, skirt disclosure requirements by merely advising clients and associates who do actual lobbying, and avoiding regular contact with policymakers. Obama's ban does not cover such individuals.
For example, partners from the Atlanta-based law firm Alston & Bird donated $33,000 to Obama in the first 90 days of 2007.
Alston & Bird has a large lobbying division in Washington. It billed its clients nearly $3.9 million in 2006, ranking 35th among Washington lobbyists. Alston boasts on its website that it offers clients "unique experience with how policy is made" and knows "the people who make it: government and agency officials; members of Congress and their staff."
Obama kept $2,300 donated by Alston's Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader. Daschle, located in Washington, is neither a lawyer nor a lobbyist. He is a consultant.
According to Alston's website, Daschle advises "clients on issues related to all aspects of public policy with a particular emphasis on issues related to financial services, health care, energy, telecommunications and taxes."
Daschle did not return phone calls.
While refusing money directly from federal lobbyists, who get their income from clients, Obama takes money from those clients. In the first quarter of 2007, he accepted a combined $170,000 from Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, two financial services giants that have numerous issues pending in Washington and spent a total of $4.6 million on lobbying in 2006.
Power provider's largess