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Obama still gets oil money

He took in $46,000 in donations from executives and workers last month. In a TV ad, he said he took no cash from companies.

April 24, 2008|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer
  • Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, talks to the media during a news conference held after a town hall-style meeting in New Albany, Ind., Wednesday, April 23, 2008.
Democratic presidential hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, talks… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)

Sen. Barack Obama continued accepting donations from oil company executives and employees last month even as he aired ads in which he stated he took no oil company money, his campaign finance reports show.

Obama has taken at least $263,000 from oil company executives, family members and employees since entering the presidential race last year, including $46,000 last month. At least $140,000 has come in chunks of between $1,000 and $2,300, the maximum permitted under federal law.

Texas oil executive Robert L. Cavnar of Milagro Exploration and his wife, Gracie, have helped the Illinois Democrat raise at least another $50,000 by helping host a fundraiser earlier in the campaign.

Other oil industry donors have included Sinclair Oil President Ross Matthews of Texas and John B. Hess, chairman of Hess Corp., a New York-based oil producer and retailer with operations worldwide. Hess, who has given to other presidential candidates, including Sen. John McCain, gave $2,300 to Obama last year, as did his wife, Susan. Hess gave $14,000 to Obama's Senate run in 2003. The oil executives did not return phone calls.

In the weeks leading up to the Pennsylvania primary, Obama aired a campaign spot in Indiana and Pennsylvania that sought to reinforce his theme that he would change the Washington culture, while also tapping into voter distress about the high price of gasoline. In the ad, he called for a windfall profits "penalty."

"Since the gas lines of the '70s, Democrats and Republicans have talked about energy independence but nothing's changed -- except now Exxon's making $40 billion a year and we're paying $3.50 for gas. I'm Barack Obama. I don't take money from oil companies or Washington lobbyists, and I won't let them block change anymore," says the spot, which aired as recently as April 8.

Obama's ad is factually correct. He does not take money from oil companies. A 1907 federal law bars all corporations from giving money to political candidates. However, oil company employees can make donations.

As the ad aired, Obama took $12,400 from oil company executives and employees in increments of $1,000 or more. Altogether, people who identify themselves as working for oil and gas companies donated $46,000 in March.

Obama spokesman Ben Labolt said unlike Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and McCain, Obama refused to take money from federal lobbyists and political action committees.

"He accepted no contributions from oil and gas company political action committees, or from those who are paid to lobby Congress on behalf of oil and gas companies -- the money that is intended to purchase influence and access on behalf of corporate interests," Labolt said.

Clinton countered Obama's ad with one detailing his oil company-related donations from employees and executives of Exxon and other major petroleum companies. Factcheck.org, part of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, also chastised Obama for airing the spot.

"From our perspective, if there is a distinction between oil company PACs and lobbyists, and their executives, it is a mighty fine line," said Sheila Krumholz, director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations. "They all represent the same interest -- oil."

Clinton has taken $336,000 from oil company executives and employees since entering the presidential race, including $27,000 in March. McCain took $41,000 last month, for a total of $445,000.

Donors who spoke with The Times said their contributions were not directed by their employers.

Bill Mintz, communications director for Apache Corp., a Houston-based oil company, said his decision to give -- he contributed $2,300 in February before Obama's ad aired -- was neither solicited by his company executives nor by Obama's campaign.

Mintz said in an interview that the Obama ad did not make him regret his donation. But he also said the spot underscored what he saw as a persistent problem in the political discourse over energy.

"I don't think either party is addressing the country's and world's energy needs realistically," Mintz said. "We're not going to produce our way out of this and we're not going to solve the problem with conservation and alternative energy."

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dan.morain@latimes.com

Times researcher Maloy Moore and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.

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