Joe Biden entered the Democratic primary promising “from day one” to reject campaign cash from lobbyists.
“I work for you — not any industry,” he tweeted.
Yet hours after his April campaign kickoff, the former vice president went to a fundraiser at the home of a lobbying executive. And in the months since, he’s done it again and again.
It’s difficult to quantify how much Biden has raised from the multibillion-dollar influence industry, but the roughly $200,000 he accepted from employees of major lobbying firms is far more than any of his rivals has received, according to a review of campaign finance data by The Associated Press.
Though it is a small fraction of the $21.5 million he reported raising in the second quarter of 2019, the money demonstrates a comfort with an industry that is the object of scorn of Democratic activists and some of Biden’s principal rivals.
Biden’s pledge applies only to federally registered lobbyists, and most of the money tracked by the AP was from others in the influence industry. But thousands of dollars did come from federally registered lobbyists, and Biden’s campaign said it is returning such donations.
That includes roughly $6,000 in contributions his campaign accepted from six federally registered lobbyists, including representatives of Google, aerospace and defense giant Lockheed Martin, and pharmaceutical companies, records show. An additional $5,750 was donated by two lobbyists who had been registered shortly before making contributions to Biden’s campaign, records show.
In at least two instances, donations came from lobbyists with criminal records who have served time in federal prison.
Former Florida Rep. Lawrence J. Smith, a federally registered lobbyist representing the city of Pembroke Pines, gave Biden $1,000 after attending a fundraiser in May. Smith left Congress in 1993 after it was revealed he bounced 161 bad checks. He was convicted months later of tax evasion and using campaign cash to settle a gambling debt.
Maryland statehouse lobbyist Gerard E. Evans gave Biden $2,600, records show. He was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison in 2000 after being found guilty of participating in an elaborate fake legislation scheme that bilked clients out of more than $400,000 in lobbying fees, according to court records.
Excluded from Biden’s pledge are lobbyists who work at the state level and those who lobby, or supervise lobbyists, but do not meet the legal threshold requiring them to register.
Spokesman Matt Hill said in a statement that Biden will “fight the influence of corporations and special interests in our political system, which is why his campaign refuses donations from corporations, their PACs, and federal lobbyists.”
Biden’s approach contrasts sharply with Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who have built their campaigns around a vow to reject big money in politics. Both have sworn off big-dollar fundraisers, while Biden has embraced them.
Such an embrace “doesn’t mean your positions are up for sale,” said John Wonderlich, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a nonpartisan group that advocates for government transparency. But it “can certainly change what issues seem the most salient and whose voice gets heard.”
Biden is not alone in accepting contributions from the influence industry. President Donald Trump vowed to “drain the swamp” but has since reaped contributions from powerful industries with business before his administration. And many of Biden’s Democratic rivals have made similar pledges that also include subtle caveats and omissions.
Still, he collected about $30,000 more from employees of top lobbying firms than California Sen. Kamala Harris and roughly $100,000 more than South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, both of whom made similar pledges but have been in the race longer than him. Every other White House hopeful received far less.
Several recent fundraisers held for Biden highlight his ties to prominent figures in the influence business, many of whom have been active in Washington for decades.
In August, Biden was feted at the home of Nelson W. Cunningham, president and co-founder of McLarty Associates and a former adviser to Bill Clinton. The global public affairs firm represents Chevron, General Electric, Walmart and Uber, but notes on its website that the list only includes “the ones we can mention.”
Several days before, Biden attended a fundraiser at the Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home of Peter Shields, the leader of Washington-based Wiley Rein, a firm with recent lobbying clients that include AT&T, global mining company Glencore, Nucor steel, Verizon and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
His campaign kickoff fundraiser was at the Philadelphia home of David L. Cohen, a Comcast executive who oversees the telecom giant’s lobbying operation.
Biden’s campaign says the fundraiser hosts are not registered lobbyists and often have diverse work portfolios that include much more than government relations. But they are also players in the influence game.
Biden’s pledge to reject money from lobbyists is a change for him. Before he entered the 2020 race, his American Possibilities political action committee had no such prohibition.
The PAC, which Biden used to finance his political activities after leaving the White House in 2017, accepted at least $113,000 from at least a dozen current and formerly registered lobbyists, in addition to more than 30 others who work in the influence industry, records show. Among them are representatives for Boeing, Apple, the NFL, Facebook, General Motors and the National Association of Mortgage Brokers, as well as other representatives of the big pharmaceutical, tech, telecom and financial services companies, records show.
One of the top recipients of money from the PAC was a company Biden created.
His campaign says the $137,000 routed to Biden’s company, Celtic Capri, was used to pay or reimburse aides for work, such as during last year’s midterm elections when Biden kept up an aggressive campaign schedule.
“As Vice President Biden remained active in public life after leaving office, supporting a number of charitable causes and Democratic political candidates at every level, Celtic Capri established a framework to ensure he and the staff supporting him fulfilled their responsibilities to keep charitable and political endeavors separate,” Hill, the spokesman, said in a statement on Tuesday.
Yet the move is commonly used to avoid disclosing how political money is spent. Because the money was routed to Celtic Capri, campaign finance records don’t detail the end recipient of the payments, which are listed as reimbursements or “staff support.” Around the same time, Biden collected $425,000 in salary from Celtic Capri, according to a financial disclosure.
Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney, said the use of limited liability companies such as these is a growing problem. “The ultimate recipients of the money aren’t disclosed. Sometimes it’s for legitimate, or quasi-legitimate, reasons. And sometimes it’s for illegitimate reasons.”