April 13, 2012

The Real Hilary Rosen Scandal: Does Her Firm Sell Access To The White House To Powerful Corporations?

The Real Hilary Rosen Scandal: Does Her Firm Sell Access To The White House To Powerful Corporations?

Hilary Rosen, a Democratic lobbyist and pundit for CNN, found herself caught up in 24-hour news cycle controversy after she made some inflammatory comments about Ann Romney’s work as stay-at-home mom. Rosen has apologized for her off-the-cuff comments. But the entire story may set off a greater, more substantive inquiry about the nature of Rosen’s consulting firm, SKDKnickerbocker, an unregistered lobbying firm that has become one of the biggest names in the influence business by using its ties to President Obama and leaders in Congress.

Predictably, Republicans have noticed that Rosen is a frequent visitor to the White House. While Democrats are arguing that Rosen is not an advisor to the Democratic Party or President Obama’s reelection campaign, then what are the meetings about? Today in the Politico’s “Morning Money,” reporter Ben White flags a deeper concern:

Per a senior Dem: “Serious Dem operatives are aghast at Hilary Rosen’s misguided attack on Ann Romney’s work history. She and others at PR firm SKD Knickerbocker have represented many clients that have raised hackles with senior White House staff. It’s an open secret in the Dem consultant community that SKD has been signing up clients based on ‘perceived White House access’ tied to prior relationships and employment.”

As we’ve reported, SKDKnickerbocker is led by a team of former Democratic operatives and key White House figures. But instead of promoting a progressive agenda, or even an Obama agenda, these consultants score huge contracts by helping corporate interests lobby for policies that are not in line with the public interest. Many SKDKnickerbocker employees, including Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director, are also frequent White House visitors.

We’ve compiled a partial list of SKDKnickerbocker’s clients. Since the firm refuses to register as an ordinary lobbying firm, we don’t know their full roster of clients:

-– SKDKnickerbocker was hired by Kaplan Education to block Obama’s reforms on for-profit college companies, an industry plagued by low quality education, false promises to students, and fraudulent business practices.

-– SKDKnickerbocker was hired to push for billions in tax breaks for already profitable corporations. As Bloomberg reported, SKDKnickerbocker manages a lobbying campaign called “Win America,” an effort by companies like Google and Pfizer to receive hundreds of billions in tax breaks on profits made overseas.

-– SKDKnickerbocker was hired by a coalition of food manufacturers to fight the Obama administration’s proposals on food nutrition standards. As the Washington Post reported, the firms paying Dunn include General Mills and PepsiCo.

— SKDKnickerbocker consults for Students First, a lobbying group aimed at destroying collective bargaining, and replacing public education with a mix of charters, private schools, and online learning companies. According to documents revealed the blog At The Chalk Face, Students First helped craft bills in Michigan to break teachers unions by severely limiting collective bargaining.

— SKDKnickerbocker previously worked with the Association of American Railroads, a group representing large railroad companies. When the railroad industry was in a pitched battle with their respective labor unions, SKDKnickberbocker produced ads for the railroad lobby.

A proposal leaked two months ago showed that a group of political consultants worked up an effort to find hedge funds to pay them to kill efforts to enact the “Buffett Rule.” The memo listed Dunn as a participant in the proposed work and clearly advertised Dunn’s ties to the White House. [See Editor’s Note below]

Earlier this year, I asked Hilary Rosen’s partner, Anita Dunn: “You have a lot of access to the President, from advising his campaign to regular visits to the White House. Do you think its a little bit disingenuous that you’re simultaneously being paid by a lot of corporations to lobby against his reforms?” Dunn scoffed at my question, and replied that she works for “some corporations” because “people have a right to be heard.” But the evidence suggests Dunn isn’t just giving voice to these multinational corporations. She’s also peddling their interests before government, all without registering any of her employees as lobbyists.

We would like to know more about who is paying Dunn, especially since she has the president’s ear. However, like Newt Gingrich and Ed Gillespie, she exploits weaknesses in current lobbying registration law to avoid revealing her clients.

UPDATE: Politico’s money and politics reporter, Ken Vogel, tweets that Rosen brought one of her lobbying clients, a Microsoft executive named John Kelly, to a state dinner at the White House in March:

The Real Hilary Rosen Scandal: Does Her Firm Sell Access To The White House To Powerful Corporations?
UPDATE:Editor’s note: SKDKnickerbocker, through its vice president Rachel Racusen, contacted Republic Report and took issue with some points in this piece.

1. Regarding Republic Report’s mention above of a leaked pitch to hedge funds that touted the services of SKDKnickerbocker’s Anita Dunn, Racusen noted a Politico piece from February:

DUNN FIGHTS BACK: Former White House official Anita Dunn, now of SKDKnickerbocker, is challenging a report in the Washington Free Beacon that claimed she is shilling for the hedge fund industry. The Beacon reported in its story that Dunn was “working as a public relations consultant to improve the industry’s image.” But PR firm McLean/Clark said it never actually got a contract with a hedge fund. She was listed on proposal materials produced by the firm — which was as far as it went. Click here for the full Beacon story:http://bit.ly/yjmJ42.
The Washington Free Beacon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

McLean/Clark’s Joe McLean told PI that the firm last summer was “asked to make a presentation about how public affairs services differ from public relations.” Several public affairs and public relations industry people — from both sides — participated in an informal dinner on the issue. McLean was then asked to prepare a proposal. “That’s as far as it went,” McLean said. “SKDK informed us last summer that they were not interested in being a part of this effort, and no subsequent activity with SKDK has occurred. I hope this clears up the matter.”
SKDK also provided PI with an email dated Feb. 7 to the Beacon reporter Patrick Howley that reads, “SKDK is not currently working with McLean Clark on any projects.” In the piece published today, Howley writes that the firm declined to comment beyond Dunn’s assistant saying he couldn’t provide a statement.
Further, SKDK senior vice president Paul Thornell said in a statement that the “story is not true. Period. Neither Anita nor SKDK is working for any hedge funds or with McLean/Clark on any projects.”
“We made it clear last summer that we were not interested in being part of any proposal and we’ve not been part of any ongoing McLean/Clark work on this issue. The Washington Free Beacon fumbled this story with inaccurate reporting that will only damage the credibility of this fledgling entity,” Thornell added.

Republic Report did not assert that Dunn or SKDK actually worked for hedge funds on this issue, but we did imply that Dunn agreed to and participated in the crafting of the pitch (“a group of political consultants, including SKDKnickerbocker’s Anita Dunn, worked up an effort to find hedge funds to pay them to kill efforts to enact the ‘Buffett Rule.’ In the memo, Dunn clearly advertised her ties to the White House.”) The statements to Politico from McLean/Clark and SKDK’s Doug Thornell did not fully resolve for us questions about how Anita Dunn ended up named in the proposal crafted by McLean/Clark – there was an “informal dinner” after which McLean “was asked” to prepare a proposal, etc. — but Racusen told Republic Report after we published that SKDK was “never interested in being part of this effort.” We subsequently called McLean/Clark for comment. Joe McLean told us, “I’ve already said everything I’m going to say.” When we followed up by asking, “Did anyone from SKD work with you on this proposal,” McLean repeated himself and hung up. Other than the pitch document itself, the most relevant information is SKDK’s denial, which implies that McLean/Clark included Dunn in the document without Dunn’s permission. We regret not calling SKDK for comment before repeating the allegation from the Free Beacon.  We have revised the text of that paragraph.

2. Racusen took issue with the piece’s references to Rosen, Dunn, and SKDK as “lobbyists.” Republic Report is not asserting that the firm or its staff meet the specific legal definition of a lobbyist that require registration (“Lobbyist: Any individual (1) who is either employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation (2) whose services include more than one lobbying contact; and (3) whose lobbying activities constitute 20 percent or more of his or her services’ time on behalf of that client during any three-month period.”). We’re calling them lobbyists based on the dictionary definition of the word:

Lobbyist: a person who tries to influence legislation on behalf of a special interest.” Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary (2001)

Lobby: to conduct activities aimed at influencing public officials and especially members of a legislative body on legislation.” Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online.

We assert that special interest clients have hired Rosen, Dunn, and SKDK for the purpose of influencing the outcome of fights over legislation and regulation. We don’t know whether Rosen or Dunn have used their many meetings at the White House to lobby, but communications, media relations, and strategy work that SKDK did on matters described in our piece fit the dictionary, common-sense definition of lobbying. (Consider also this reference in a corporate meeting schedule: “In our successful fight to get the exigency postal rate case overturned, ACMA cofounded the Affordable Mail Alliance (AMA) along with other trade groups and companies. One of the most important moves we made as an alliance was to hire Mr. Slater [Alex Slater, Managing Director, SKD Knickerbocker] and his public relations firm. In addition to getting the AMA message in the spotlight, SKD Knickerbocker worked closely with several ACMA members to help them lobby their local members of Congress.” Slater and SKDK did not register as lobbyists for this client, and we don’t suggest they are required to under the law. But it appears Slater was involved in lobbying.)

We believe that Congress should enlarge the definition of lobbyist to include more people in the influence industry and require them to register and disclose. In the meantime, we think that firms hired to influence legislation or regulations, regardless of whether they meet the statutory definition of legislation of regulation, should, in the spirit of greater openness and strong democracy, consider disclosing all their clients, and the work they do for their clients, on their websites. (Racusen said of SKDK, “We don’t avoid revealing clients.”)

3. Racusen also noted that Republic Report’s piece did not write about the extensive work SKDK does, paid and pro bono, on behalf of progressive and public-spirited causes and clients, such as Georgetown student Sandra Fluke, marriage equality advocates, and the Humane Society. None of our pieces suggest that the subjects we write about don’t do positive things, and sometimes incredible things, to make the country and world better. We respect and admire that work. (Disclosure: A Republic Report editor, David Halperin, has in the past worked with, and is friendly with, a number of SKDK staff members.) But the subject of Republic Report is the corrupting influence of money on politics. And the challenge of reducing the role of money in politics, and of reducing citizen cynicism about Washington DC, escalates when close confidants of a President, and champions of important public causes, are paid to advocate for groups seeking to undermine the President’s agenda, and, we would say, the public interest, on key issues like for-profit colleges. If SKDK or anyone does positive things to reduce the corrupting influence of money on politics, we want to know that and want to write about it. (Racusen also noted that our piece said, “SKDKnickerbocker is led by a team of former Democratic operatives.” For the record, her correction: “You call us former Dem operatives, we’re actually current.”)