Topics: National News

Podesta clan's close ties to Obama pay off big

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Politics,News,Nation,Business,Timothy P. Carney

John Podesta, chief executive officer of the liberal Center for American Progress, may be President Obama's closest confidant outside of the administration -- he ran the transition and has visited the White House at least 37 times according to visitor logs. Tony Podesta, John's brother, is a corporate lobbyist and a leading fundraiser for Democrats.

On at least a handful of issues, John's CAP has advocated the same solutions Tony has lobbied for. On some of those issues, CAP has partnered with the companies that hire Tony as a lobbyist. Given Obama's anti-lobbyist rhetoric -- and the gaping holes in his lobbyist policies that have been repeatedly exposed -- it's worth examining where the work of the president's confidant, John, dovetails with the business of lobbyist and fundraiser, Tony.

In June 2009, Obama's health care bill got a boost from a strange-bedfellows coalition: CAP and the Service Employees International Union teamed up with Wal-Mart to endorse a proposed requirement that employers provide health insurance for employees.

The groups co-signed a letter declaring, "We are for an employer mandate which is fair and broad in its coverage." They also said, "we have worked closely in support of health care reform since 2006."

Wal-Mart benefited from this regulation, partly by forming a truce with Big Labor and good press from a gullible media. But the regulation also gave Wal-Mart a competitive advantage. Wal-Mart self-insures its employees -- meaning the company, not an insurer, collects premiums and pays providers. As America's largest private-sector employer, Wal-Mart uses economies of scale to get a better deal on health care. Smaller competitors, if forced to match Wal-Mart's benefit level, would suffer.

Wal-Mart had given at least $500,000 to CAP, according to Wal-Mart's Web site. But there was another connection: Tony Podesta was (and still is) a lobbyist for Wal-Mart, on issues that include health care policy. Wal-Mart had hired Podesta in September 2006 (the firm was then called Podesta Mattoon), just about when CAP, Big Labor, and Wal-Mart started "work[ing] closely in support of health care reform."

This isn't the only overlap of interests between the nonprofit CAP and the Podesta Group.

Tony has represented BP since 2006, recently lobbying for current climate legislation. BP was a prized ally for Sen. John Kerry, who is leading the charge in the Senate for a global warming bill.

According to the Wall Street Journal, John Podesta is nearly writing the president's response to the BP spill. While Obama hasn't coddled BP, he is using the spill to advance the climate legislation BP supports and for which Tony Podesta has been lobbying.

There are more green overlaps in the Podesta clan. In May 2009, CAP drafted a plan for a "Green Bank" -- a permanent government institution to finance alternative energies, like the solar energy BP dabbles in. One aspect of CAP's proposal: "The bank should work closely with private banks to provide loan guarantees, credit enhancement, and other financing tools."

The Podesta Group represents U.S. Renewables Group -- an investment firm focused on renewable energy. Podesta's lobbying issues for the group include "Congressional support for renewable energy funding" and "Options for alternative financial structures for federal government support of renewable energy."

U.S. Renewables Group is a founding partner of the U.S. Partnership for Renewable Energy Finance, and CAP holds one of three seats on the partnership's advisory board. Three other founders are Podesta clients: Bank of America, Credit Suisse and Google.

Podesta represents Google also on the issue of Internet regulations. Google, like Obama, supports "neutrality" regulations that would restrict service providers such as AT&T and Comcast in how they can charge Web-centric companies such as Google or Amazon. CAP is on the same side as the White House, Google, and the Podesta Group, and all four regularly paint opponents of the regulation as corporate puppets.

The whole situation raises questions. Do John and Tony confer on policies? Does CAP's work steer Tony's lobbying strategy? Do companies hire Tony to get closer to John, who is famously close to the president? Does John tell businesses to hire Tony? Does he provide Tony leads on potential clients?

I asked Tony Podesta these questions. Tony responded, simply, "You are silly." When I persisted, he wrote, "We have no business relationship whatsoever. We did have one that ended in 1993." (John and Tony [co-founded] a lobbying firm, which John left when he joined the Clinton administration.)

Obama is finding it harder to paint himself as the scourge of lobbyists. The record of the Podesta brothers is another reason to doubt the president's rhetoric.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.

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