WASHINGTON -- A top GOP lobbyist with informal ties to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's presidential campaign is among the group of officials helping Walmart manage the congressional fallout stemming from recent bribery allegations.
Charlie Black, a longtime K-Street operator, was part of a bipartisan group of consultants brought in by Walmart's top D.C. lobbyists for a strategy meeting on Tuesday, Roll Call reported. Other attendees included Walmart's former in-house Democratic lobbyist Kimberly Woodard, the Podesta Group's Paul Brathwaite and Capitol Counsel’s John Raffaelli.
The meeting was in response to investigations launched by congressional Democrats into allegations that the retail giant's Mexico division paid more than $24 million in bribes to help secure building and construction permits. Separately, the Department of Justice is conducting a criminal probe into whether Walmart violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bans companies from bribing foreign officials.
Prime Policy Group, Black's lobbying firm, was paid $180,000 in 2011 to lobby on behalf of Walmart stores. The amount comprised a small portion of the $7.8 million in lobbying expenditures that the retail giant made during that year, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Abbi Cawley, an assistant to Black and an associate at his firm, merely confirmed that Walmart was a client. She said that it was policy not to comment on the specifics of the work done on a client's behalf.
The list of issues on which Black lobbied in 2011 included trade legislation, consumer payment protections and the "Marketplace Fairness" and "Mainstreet Fairness Act." It did not appear to include anything related to U.S. anti-bribery laws, though on Wednesday morning, the Washington Post reported that Walmart had participated in a lobbying campaign to weaken anti-bribery legislation as well.
Black is not employed by Romney, and it's not exactly clear what role he has with respect to Romney's campaign. The campaign has only confirmed that Black is a supporter. Cawley told The Hufffington Post that "as far as the Romney campaign goes, he is an informal adviser." Pressed as to what that means, she said that Black was not paid but did consult with the campaign on a semi-regular basis.
Black has been identified during media appearances as a member of the Romney team. According to a recent New York Times profile, Black "is among those counseling Mr. Romney," available for "old-pro advice, back-channel information and whatever else the campaign happens to need." The piece also noted that what informal advisers like Black "must not do is any harm, and this can be tricky since they often embody the capital’s permanent lobbying and money class that many voters detest."
On Wednesday morning that line in particular seemed prescient, as good government groups pounded on the news of Black's Walmart work.
"Like with John McCain, it's clear that lobbyists will play a big role in Romney's campaigns -- as advisers, big money bundlers, and donors," said David Donnelly, executive director of Public Campaign Action Fund. "It's important to look at what influence these lobbyists and their clients will have in crafting Romney's policy on the campaign trail and if he makes it to the White House."
An email request for comment from the Romney campaign was not returned. The former governor has had testy exchanges in the past when insisting that he does not employ lobbyists on his campaign.
As Donnelly notes, Black is no stranger to the problems that his lobbying ties bring to a presidential race. In 2008, he quit his lobbying firm in order to join Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign (he would re-register as a lobbyist in early 2009). Even then, however, his ties to K-Street were at odds with the senator's reputation as someone who stood up to special interests.