The Inside Story Of How Citizens United Has Changed Washington Lawmaking

02/26/2015 05:00 am ET | Updated Feb 26, 2015
  • Paul Blumenthal Money in Politics Reporter, The Huffington Post
  • Ryan Grim Washington Bureau Chief, The Huffington Post

Lobbyists and trade groups have pumped huge sums into the coffers of super PACs and nonprofits connected to Speaker John Boehner, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell ever since the Citizens United decision. (Photo: Drew Angerer via Getty Images)

When Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy cast the deciding vote to gut a century of campaign finance law, he assured the public that the unlimited corporate spending he was ushering in would “not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Because those authorized to give and spend unlimited amounts were legally required to remain independent of the politicians themselves, Kennedy reasoned, there was no cause for concern.

Just five years later, in a development that may be surprising only to Justice Kennedy, the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision is reshaping how, how much and to whom money flows in Washington.

How the flood of money released by Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission has changed elections has been the subject of much discussion, but the decision’s role in allowing that same money to soak the legislative process has largely gone unreported. According to an extensive review of public documents held by the FEC, the U.S. Senate and the Internal Revenue Service, as well as interviews with lobbyists and policymakers, Kennedy's allegedly independent spending has become increasingly intertwined with lobbying and legislation -- the precise appearance of corruption campaign finance laws were meant to curb.

Politically active nonprofits, known as "dark money" groups for their ability to shield the identity of donors, and super PACs, which take unlimited sums of money but must disclose donors, have become dominated by lobbyists and other political operatives with close ties to leaders in Congress. Meanwhile, businesses with issues before Congress are pumping increasingly more money into the lobbyist-connected organizations.

The Supreme Court initially established a narrow definition of corruption in the 1970s, but Citizens United used it to blow open the gates that had been holding back corporate money. The 2010 decision came as the U.S. legislative system had evolved into a near parliamentary system of party-line voting and expansive party networks extending seamlessly from the Capitol to party headquarters to lobbying firms to outside political groups. Most top congressional legislators now have "leadership teams" -- informal but internally recognized groups of aides-turned-lobbyists who help raise funds.

To the lobbyists working in the system he helped create, Kennedy’s vision of political spending is unrecognizable. "I think Justice Kennedy's view on this was naive at best," one lobbyist told The Huffington Post, reflecting a rare bipartisan consensus. "People are going to do what's allowed under the law."

The Supreme Court majority’s casual dismissal of the possibility that the Citizens United ruling could lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption was necessary from a judicial perspective. Citizens United and a subsequent lower court ruling essentially hold that the First Amendment prevents the government from restricting political spending independent of the candidates and parties. Yet the courts had long recognized Congress’ authority to regulate the financing of campaigns and the lobbying process in order to maintain the citizens’ trust in a democratic government. Where the choice had been between the sanctity of elections on the one hand and an unfettered interpretation of the First Amendment on the other, the courts chose to protect elections -- because without a trusted government, there is no First Amendment to speak of.

Kennedy and the other four justices, therefore, had to insist that independent political spending could not lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption -- no threat of corruption meant no congressional authority to regulate that spending.

It is difficult, however, to look closely at the way laws are being made today without acknowledging at least an appearance of corruption. Congressional aides to whom HuffPost spoke all said that their own members of Congress were certainly not influenced in an untoward way by the corporate funds pumped into efforts to re-elect them, but that it was easy to see why the public might assume that to be the case. Five years later, the judicial logic of Citizens United has unraveled.

Political advisers closely associated with House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) serve as both operatives on their behalf and lobbyists for corporate clients with business before Congress. The clients are encouraged to give generously to super PACs associated with the respective lawmakers, according to lobbyists familiar with the widespread strategy.

Trevor Potter, one of the top election lawyers in the country whose clients include Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and comedian Stephen Colbert, warns that this arrangement creates exactly the appearance of corruption that courts have used to justify campaign finance limits.

“It does make a significant difference to have lobbyists involved because then you have the very lobbyists who seek official action from the members being the conduits to the money,” Potter said. “It makes them valuable to their clients because they have a good relationship with the member, and they have a tight relationship with the member because they have access to the money from their clients.”

They're making use of the opportunity. A connected super PAC and nonprofit manned by lobbyists tied to Boehner have collectively received millions from interests in the insurance, drug, energy and other industries. Big-money groups associated with McConnell have been funded by coal companies, insurers and hospitals. Mining and gambling businesses have given directly to the super PAC associated with Reid, which is staffed by two Reid confidantes, one of whom advises the lobby shop that represents those companies while she also prepares to run the senator's 2016 re-election bid. All these companies have hired lobbyists who are connected to those same lawmakers as well as to the big-money groups and who are also working on issues over which Congress has much sway. The groups they fund have spent big to put and keep Boehner, McConnell and Reid in the driver’s seat.

Tony Podesta, a Democratic super lobbyist with the Podesta Group, told HuffPost that he has encouraged his corporate clients to give to super PACs and dark money nonprofits. “It’s unfortunate that we have the decision Citizens United, but as long as that’s the law of the land, then Democrats and Republicans are both active in these kinds of endeavors,” he said.

Speaker John Boehner has close ties to the American Action Network, a dark money nonprofit, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC. These groups raise funds from clients of lobbyists looking to increase their own influence. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In the House of Representatives, Speaker Boehner maintains a tight network of former aides who have decamped to K Street. Through these aides, he is tied to a dark money nonprofit and related super PAC that have spent millions to help him become speaker and to maintain and expand his GOP majority. The House leadership's agenda regularly aligns with that of the clients of the lobbyists who give to these groups.

The two outside groups in the middle of Boehner’s web are the American Action Network, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that does not have to disclose its donors, and the Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC operating under AAN’s umbrella.

The board of directors of AAN and Congressional Leadership Fund is lined with lobbyists and influencers including Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck strategic adviser Barry Jackson, a former chief of staff to Boehner who left his office in 2012. Brownstein’s profile of Jackson, who is not registered to lobby, focuses heavily on his congressional and executive branch connections and experience without mention of any particular policy expertise.

Also, Brownstein Hyatt employed former Boehner aide Marc Lampkin as managing director of its Washington lobbying office. His firm bio declares him to be a proud member of “Team Boehner," and he is widely seen as one of the speaker's closest advisers. He is also a lobbyist for a number of interests that contribute to super PACs and nonprofits that help Republicans in elections.

The Apollo Education Group, which owns and operates the for-profit University of Phoenix, has donated $50,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund since 2012 while employing Lampkin to lobby on behalf of such schools. Boehner and his House Republicans have long been staunch supporters of for-profit universities. In recent years, they have fought back against federal regulations to rein in that industry, which relies hugely on its students receiving federal grants and taxpayer-backed loans while it fails to graduate those same students.

The CEO of pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories, another Lampkin client, gave $50,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund in 2012. Boehner recently inaugurated a new Abbott factory in his congressional district while opposing changes to tax laws that allowed Abbott to purchase an overseas competitor in 2014 and turn itself into a multinational corporation to avoid U.S. tax payments (the tactic, known as an inversion, has come under increasing scrutiny).

Lampkin and another former Boehner aide, Sam Geduldig, have both registered to lobby for the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, a trade group for large insurance companies that has given $185,000 to outside groups supporting Republicans since 2012. PCI’s contributions include $25,000 each to the Congressional Leadership Fund and AAN.

The insurers group also pumped funds into the dark money network run by Steven Law, a member of McConnell’s inner circle and a former general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. PCI gave $75,000 to Crossroads GPS and $25,000 to the Kentucky Opportunity Coalition. Both groups are run by Law and spent millions to re-elect McConnell in 2014. PCI also put money into super PACs supporting two Republicans first elected to the Senate this past November: Joni Ernst of Iowa and David Perdue of Georgia. Their seats were among the handful McConnell needed his party to win in order for him to take the Senate’s top spot.

"PCI participates in the political process like many others and supports pro business and pro property & casualty organizations,” Marguerite Tortorello, PCI's senior vice president for public affairs, said in a statement.

Shortly after the 2014 election, the two top priorities of the insurers group and the broader insurance industry were rolled into one: A provision to roll back capital standards placed on insurance companies by the Dodd-Frank financial reform law was attached to the reauthorization of the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act. Although that bill stalled last year, the new Congress in January passed a terrorism insurance reauthorization with the capital standards rollback attached -- with bipartisan support. An amendment from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to strip the rollback measure failed.

The inability to pass legislation was a hallmark of the last Congress. But one area where lawmakers forced swift action wound up being profitable for the super PACs and nonprofits that support them.

In April 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration announced that it would be furloughing air traffic controllers throughout the year due to the automatic budget cuts brought about by sequestration. This would have led to flight delays, lost profits for the airline industry and lost wages for controllers and pilots. Within a week of the announcement, Congress passed legislation to ease the sequester cuts at the FAA.

Lobbying players who pushed Congress to act on the FAA also sent contributions to various outside groups connected to congressional GOP leaders. Airlines for America, the industry’s main trade group, gave $150,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund, $35,000 to the pro-McConnell super PAC Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and $40,000 to Defending Main Street SuperPAC, a group backing moderate Republicans in fights with tea party candidates.

“You can’t have good policy without good candidates and legislation, which is why it’s important to the 2 million people we fly every day and the nearly 600,000 people we employ that we be involved,” Airlines for America spokesman Vaughn Jennings said in a statement.

The lobby group is headed by Nick Calio, a veteran of both Bush administrations, who expressed an interest in increasing the airline industry’s political giving upon taking the helm in 2010.

“You’ve got to be part of the political process, and contributions and political support are part of the political process,” Calio told Politico in 2010. “When you have people who consistently support you on policy issues, they expect you to be part of their political life support system. It’s just that simple.”

The National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union, also gave $50,000 to the Congressional Leadership Fund and $150,000 to Defending Main Street after Congress ended the sequester-related furloughs. Those contributions were out of the ordinary for the union, which had been a major supporter of Democrats alone. It has given $3.9 million to super PACs backing Democrats.

Calio is deeply enmeshed in the political party machinery, and his group rewards congressional action by making huge contributions to outside groups that directly support lawmakers. What he does not have is a direct relationship with an outside spending group. Other major lobbyists, including heads of trade associations, do.

Take Mike Duncan, who served as chairman of the Republican National Committee from 2007 to 2009. Following the Citizens United decision, he joined with Karl Rove and other GOP operatives to form the super PAC American Crossroads and the nonprofit Crossroads GPS. He still sits on the board of American Crossroads.

But Duncan is not just a party operative. In 2012, he became head of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, a major Washington lobbying arm of the coal and railroad industry. The coalition was in the midst of a massive advertising and pressure campaign in Washington as the Obama administration pushed for new regulations on coal-fired power plants to reduce their pollution.

To further increase its GOP connection, the coal coalition signed up Boehner’s former aide Lampkin to lobby in 2013.

Coal industry companies and executives on the board of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity have contributed more than $10 million to Republican outside groups. Joe Craft and his company Alliance Resource Partners have provided most of this money with contributions totaling nearly $9.4 million. Alpha Natural Resources, Consol Energy and Murray Energy have also chipped in. Additionally, Matthew Rose, the CEO of Burlington North Santa Fe and a member of the coal coalition’s board, gave $25,000 to the super PAC supporting McConnell in 2014. (This is all aside from the hundreds of millions in political spending by the Koch brothers, fossil fuel magnates.)

Republicans have, in turn, become increasingly vocal in their support for the coal industry and their opposition to any rule, regulation or idea -- including belief in climate change driven by human action -- that could harm the industry.

A spokeswoman for the coal coalition said that Duncan separates his work at American Crossroads from that at the lobbying group and does not solicit the latter’s members to give to the former.

The pro-Boehner AAN, the nonprofit parent of the Congressional Leadership Fund, is a hotbed of lobbyist activity. The board currently boasts four registered lobbyists -- former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), former Reps. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and Vin Weber (R-Minn.), and former RNC official Maria Cino -- and two other employees of lobbying firms -- former Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno and former Boehner aide Barry Jackson.

Past AAN board members include major GOP fundraiser and previously registered lobbyist C. Boyden Gray and former Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), who is the head of the Credit Union National Association.

“We’re proud to have a distinguished board from business executives to policy leaders to former elected officials -- they’ve been successful in all walks of life and they’re critical to our success,” Dan Conston, spokesman for both AAN and the Congressional Leadership Fund, said in an email. “Do they fundraise for us? Of course. Do they uphold their fiduciary responsibility to us as board members? Of course.”

Crossroads GPS, like its sister super PAC, also maintains connections to K Street through its board. Crossroads board member Sally Vastola, a former staffer for Rep. Reynolds, decamped with her old boss to the law and lobbying firm of Nixon Peabody, where she lobbies for pharmaceutical companies and the student loan giant Sallie Mae.

"Both American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS have separate and independent boards whose members do not fundraise for either organization and have a range of work outside their board positions," said Paul Lindsay, communications director for the Crossroads duo.

Lobbyists straddling the party operative-influence peddling line have themselves given more than $1 million to super PACs and nonprofits since the Citizens United decision.

The top lobbyist donor to these groups is Boyden Gray, a top-shelf GOP fundraiser and former AAN board member, whose contributions total $390,000. Gray made contributions to such super PACs as American Crossroads, Freedom PAC and Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. According to lobbyist contribution disclosures, he also gave to dark money groups: $50,000 to Crossroads GPS and $15,000 to Wisconsin Club for Growth as it worked incredibly closely with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) to help him survive a recall election.

"The vast majority of our donors give on the basis of broad philosophical conviction," said Crossroads' Lindsay. "The fact that some have various policy interests should come as no surprise, but those interests have no effect on our activities."

The full record of lobbyists and their clients funding outside groups connected to party leadership is almost certainly obscured by the fact that many of these groups are not required to disclose their donors. Dark money nonprofits like AAN, Crossroads GPS and the Democratic Party group Patriot Majority USA spend huge sums on elections and on attack ads masquerading as issue advocacy. Few of their donors have materialized, but what little has leaked indicates that contributions from clients of party-linked lobbyists and trade associations actively lobbying Congress are common.

AAN has sucked in millions from Washington-based corporate trade groups and corporations with major interests in Congress. Those donations include $6 million from Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and $3.3 million from pharmaceutical giant Aetna. The Alliance for Quality Home Nursing Care chipped in $250,000. Additional funds came from America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the Motion Picture Association of America and the top lobbyist for Health Care Service Corporation.

The Alliance for Quality Home Nursing Care and its affiliated group, the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare, have given $2.9 million to outside groups as part of their lobbying campaign to restore Medicare reimbursements for home and hospice care that were cut by the Affordable Care Act. The two groups have hired top lobbyists to help direct their efforts, including Democrat Tony Podesta and Republican Haley Barbour.

Barbour, a former two-term governor of Mississippi and a onetime RNC chairman, is the personification of this cross-pollinating age. He is a powerhouse lobbyist running the BGR Group who is also an adviser to political campaigns and a past fundraiser for American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. One client, the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare, gave $500,000 to Crossroads GPS in 2012.

In 2014, Barbour joined hands with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to beat back a tea party primary challenge to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.). Cochran had attracted the ire of tea party activists for his support of immigration reform and his long history of earmarking funds to build projects in his impoverished state. To save the six-term senator’s seat, Barbour helped launch the super PAC Mississippi Conservatives with the backing of the chamber and Republican Senate leadership. He chipped in $35,000 of his own money, and Crest Investment Company, one of his clients, sent an additional $50,000. The chamber gave $100,000 to the super PAC and directly spent another $1.2 million to help re-elect Cochran.

Cochran’s eventual victory in a run-off election was a triumphant moment for Barbour, the chamber and Republican leadership. They had beaten back a potential stumbling block to capturing the Senate majority.

The chamber didn’t just support an establishment Republican in Mississippi last year. The larger anti-tea party campaign was chiefly its work. The chamber ran hard against tea party candidates in Kentucky and North Carolina while scaring off potential challengers in West Virginia before they could materialize. In Iowa and Colorado, it found common ground on candidates with national tea party groups.

Of course, beyond being a funder of election ads, the Chamber of Commerce is also the nation’s largest business lobby, generously funded by corporations across America. It employs dozens of Washington lobbyists, including top former staffers for McConnell. And it does not shy away from the implication that its campaign spending is part of its lobbying operation.

"Our deal is to have a political program so that there is a hammer, and there is a consequence, and there is leverage and it's aggressive," Rob Engstrom, the chamber’s national political director, told CNN in 2014.

Once Republicans won the majority in the Senate, they immediately talked up the chamber’s priorities, from the Keystone XL pipeline to tax reform and pro-corporate trade policies. Newly elected Republican senators backed by the chamber announced their support for immigration reform, which the chamber strongly favors, and increased transportation and infrastructure spending, a major chamber wish opposed by the GOP’s tea party wing.

As noted, a former general counsel for the Chamber of Commerce and McConnell insider, Law, now runs American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS. For his own re-election, the new Senate majority leader is tightly bound to the Crossroads duo and two state groups, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership and Kentucky Opportunity Coalition. Former McConnell aide Scott Jennings operates as the public face of the latter two organizations, which are also headed by Law.

Soon after the 2014 victory, McConnell and Law announced the creation of yet another super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, which will raise funds to maintain the new GOP majority. The formation of the group echoes the big-money strategy used by now-Minority Leader Reid to keep Senate Democrats in power for the previous four years.

Lobbyists and their clients have poured money into a super PAC and nonprofit run by former aides of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid as they seek legislative action from his office. (Photo: Benjamin Lowy/Getty Images)

Indeed, Democrats have been tapping the post-Citizens United nexus of super PACs, former leadership aides and lobbying groups, too. Reid’s network is well-connected.

Rebecca Lambe, the adviser most closely associated with Reid’s re-election in 2010 and his coming bid in 2016, is employed by the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates -- as is former senior Reid aide, Kai Anderson. Lambe began work at Cassidy in early 2011. She is also the treasurer of Senate Majority PAC, the super PAC aimed at electing Senate Democrats. The latter group was founded in 2011 by Lambe and Susan McCue, Reid’s former chief of staff and longtime confidante. McCue, who is president of Senate Majority PAC, is also connected to Patriot Majority USA, a dark money group with a similar aim.

Since the Citizens United decision in January 2010, lobbyists at and clients of Cassidy & Associates have given $675,000 to Senate Majority PAC and affiliated groups. Another $1.66 million has come from those who attended super PAC strategy sessions hosted by Lambe, including lobbyists and clients of other lobbyists, some of whom are other former Reid aides.

Lambe’s connection to Reid is an asset to Cassidy, and the firm makes no bones about it. Her Cassidy website bio is rich with details about her ongoing connections to Reid, and her relationship with the top Senate Democrat has been a selling point in meetings with prospective clients. At one pitch meeting in May 2013, for instance, Lambe was described as both a senior Cassidy staffer and Reid’s top political strategist, according to a source at the meeting.

It’s common for lobbyists to reference their ties to powerful politicians earned through past service, but ongoing service is unusual. A second source in the room recalled Lambe being mentioned as a Cassidy staffer who would be available to the prospective client, but couldn’t recall how she was specifically identified with regard to Reid. “Of course, her reputation precedes her,” the second source said.

In 2012, her company bio (accessed through the Internet Archive) said, “Lambe is one of the nation’s top political strategists. … Building on the highly successful model in Nevada, Lambe recently led the effort to create Majority PAC [now Senate Majority PAC], an unprecedented, independent effort to protect the Democratic Majority in the U.S. Senate in 2012. She currently serves as a Senior Advisor and Strategist to the newly formed SuperPAC.”

Tom Alexander, a spokesman for Cassidy, said that “there is nothing unusual about promoting the background and experience of your team. Rebecca does not lobby for us; rather, we periodically seek her counsel as we develop effective strategies for our clients.”

Lambe has been a liaison to K Street Democrats on Senate Majority PAC’s plans and fundraising needs. She led a presentation in June 2013 about the super PAC before some of the top Democratic lobbyists and lawmakers in Washington. Attendees included Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and lobbyists from firms whose clients gave to the super PAC as well as to Patriot Majority USA.

“She’s a very smart political operative, and I would support anything that she does,” Podesta, another attendee, said of Lambe. That event, he said, was intended “to encourage [the lobbyists] to contribute and to encourage them to encourage others to contribute.”

Lambe is also closely involved with what’s known as the Clean Energy Project. McCue, the Senate Majority PAC co-founder, sits on the project's board, and Cassidy & Associates is a top sponsor. Lambe herself helps organize its annual National Clean Energy Summit, held in Las Vegas.

The summit in his home state serves as a venue for Reid to showcase the alternative energy industry in Nevada and provides space for energy and vehicle companies to promote their products. One of the repeat sponsors of the summit is Cassidy client and casino operator MGM Resorts International, which is also a heavy donor to Senate Majority PAC.

The Cassidy firm and its clients generally have been an oft-tapped resource for Reid and Senate Majority PAC. In 2012, Gerald Cassidy, the firm’s founder, gave $50,000 to the super PAC. (Cassidy, who is officially retired from the firm, is known as the father of the earmark.) Michael Kowalski, then CEO of Cassidy client Tiffany & Co., gave $125,000 in the 2012 elections and another $100,000 in 2014. In 2010, MGM Resorts gave $300,000 to Patriot Majority, then a super PAC, supporting Reid’s re-election. Newmont Mining Corporation put $100,000 into Senate Majority PAC in 2012 and hired Cassidy the next year.

Alexander, spokesman for Cassidy & Associates, said the firm does not comment on contributions made or solicited by its employees and would not say whether the firm asked clients to give to super PACs.

The $225,000 contributed by Kowalski came as Tiffany & Co. was engaged in a lobbying campaign, alongside a coalition of environmental and fiscal watchdog groups, to update a key federal mining law from 1872. The company employed former Reid aide Anderson to lobby on its behalf.

After Democrats won control of both houses of Congress in 2006, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) and other congressmen pushed a bill to require mining companies operating on public lands to pay royalties to the government and to abide by stricter environmental regulations. Rahall told USA Today in 2007 that everyone in the House would be for reform, but that Reid, then the Senate majority leader, posed an obstacle.

“Well, obviously, the man in control over there is the gentleman from the largest gold-producing state,” Rahall said. Nevada is one of the world’s top producers of gold, and Reid, whose father was a gold miner, is an ardent supporter of and regular opponent of new regulation on the industry.

A mining reform bill passed the House in 2008 but went nowhere in the Senate, where Reid opposed the level of royalties, among other provisions. No such bill has passed either chamber since. Reid never stated outright that he was against the mining reform, though he said it must be crafted appropriately to satisfy the industry and protect mining jobs.

The continued debate has helped elicit further contributions from both the mining industry and consumer-facing companies like Tiffany, which are hoping to avoid customer backlash over ties between their products and polluting mines. Environmental groups have already launched campaigns targeting the sale of jewelry using materials from mines with poor pollution records.

Tiffany’s reform stance, in particular, stems from its past failure to get in front of consumer fury over the sale of “blood diamonds” -- diamonds sourced from war-torn African countries -- in the 2000s. CEO Kowalski told the Las Vegas Sun in 2007 that his company’s involvement in the issue “has never been ulterior or anything more than corporate self-interest.”

As Tiffany became more involved in the issue, Kowalski’s donations increased. Prior to 2007, he had made few contributions. But since 2008 he has given more than $160,000 to Democratic Party candidates and party committees, including $7,200 to Reid’s 2010 campaign. This was on top of the $225,000 to Senate Majority PAC.

Tiffany has been unable to secure a legislative win despite its heavy giving. Sometimes lobbyists squeeze corporations for money knowing their goal will remain elusive.

Anderson, the former Reid aide-turned-Cassidy staffer, also represents Newmont Mining, one of the top American gold mining companies operating in Nevada, but that lobbying has a different focus: federal efforts to preserve the greater sage grouse. The company fears that protections for the imperiled bird under the Endangered Species Act could interfere with its mining operations. The Fish and Wildlife Service is supposed to make a decision on whether to list the bird by September 2015.

Cassidy was hired in July 2013, as the Bureau of Land Management was evaluating threats to sage grouse habitat in Nevada. The BLM analysis looked like it might jeopardize a new gold mine that Newmont had proposed.

Reid worked with Nevada’s junior senator, Republican Dean Heller, and in December of that year they offered draft legislation that would allow the state to take the lead on protecting the greater sage grouse. Their proposal would have designated certain areas for the birds, preventing an Endangered Species Act listing and leaving other areas open to development by mining operators like Newmont. That bill never passed, but language barring the Interior Department from moving forward on the greater sage grouse was part of the Reid-supported spending package in December 2014.

Anderson is also registered to lobby for MGM Resorts, one of the largest casino operators in the world. Reid is an unabashed champion of his state’s gaming industry and, as Reid defenders note, would go to bat for it whether contributions were made or not.

Still, those contributions have been made. In 2010, MGM Resorts pumped $300,000 into the Patriot Majority super PAC to help Reid defeat Republican challenger Sharron Angle. After his re-election, Reid attempted to attach language to a must-pass tax bill to open the door to online gambling in the United States. This measure was carefully tailored to provide the very first online gambling licenses to companies like MGM and Harrah’s Entertainment (now Caesar’s Entertainment), which also gave to Patriot Majority. (Reid now opposes Internet gaming -- a switch that, some speculate, is aimed at deterring casino magnate Sheldon Adelson from spending money to defeat the senator in 2016.)

Reid also came to MGM Resorts’ aid when a major development project with Dubai World faced financing problems during the global economic crisis. Reid helped persuade bankers to provide funding. He has said he considers the salvaging of the project, and the 22,000 Nevada jobs connected to it, among his most significant home state achievements.

While Cassidy & Associates offers the strongest linkage between Reid’s office, Senate Majority PAC and lobbying clients seeking favors on Capitol Hill, the firm is not the only K Street denizen with ties to the super PAC. Many of the lobbyists who attended the 2013 presentation by Lambe had or would make five-figure contributions to the super PAC. In some cases, the clients of those lobbyists gave, too.

The Air Line Pilots Association, a Podesta Group client, gave $100,000 to Senate Majority PAC in 2014. Another Podesta client, the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare (then known as Home Health Advocacy Coalition), gave $125,000 in 2014.

These lobbyists’ clients also gave to Patriot Majority USA, the related dark money group. According to tax returns, the Partnership for Quality Home Healthcare and yet another Podesta client, the Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care, gave a combined $1.5 million to the nonprofit from 2011 to 2012.

“I’m a supporter of both groups and urge people to support both groups,” said Podesta, who personally contributed $50,000 to Senate Majority PAC in 2012.

Before there was a Senate Majority PAC, there was another Democratic nonprofit acting as a key node in the flow of money from lobbying interests to help elect helpful politicians. Citizens for Strength & Security Action Fund, and its later iterations, provides what may be the clearest example of how outside spending groups are used by lobbyists to curry favor with leaders in Congress.

The story begins back when Congress debated and passed the Affordable Care Act. An immense legislative accomplishment for President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, the law was also the subject of a massive, still-ongoing lobbying campaign. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent tens of millions of dollars trying to defeat the reform bill, much of it provided by America’s Health Insurance Plans, a lobbying association for health insurers. The chamber also spent millions more trying to defeat reform proponents in the 2010 election.

The preeminent interest group spreading money around Washington on health care reform, however, was the pharmaceutical industry. Under the stewardship of former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) -- whose leap from writing the Medicare prescription drug law to lobbying on K Street led to an eponymous rules change in Congress -- Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America worked behind the scenes with the White House and then-Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) to advance the legislation. PhRMA’s chief requirements: that the new law not reverse the ban on re-importing drugs and not grant authority to Medicare, Medicaid or any new entity to negotiate lower drug prices.

In return for abandoning those two longstanding Democratic Party goals, Democrats would get PhRMA’s support, which included directing millions of dollars to outside nonprofits to pay for electoral and advocacy ads. Along with other industry groups like the Federation of American Hospitals and reform proponents like Families USA, PhRMA launched Americans for Stable Quality Care in 2009. The new dark-money nonprofit raised and spent $46 million that year to fund a barrage of ads backing Obama’s health bill.

And then, two months before the law passed in March 2010, the Supreme Court handed down the Citizens United decision, allowing corporations to fund electoral efforts through nonprofits like Americans for Stable Quality Care. The group quickly changed its name to Citizens for Strength & Security Action Fund and transformed into an overtly political operation.

PhRMA pumped $2.5 million into that group in 2010 to help pay for ads supporting the election of Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.). Their seats were vital to maintaining the Democratic majority in the Senate.

The pharmaceutical lobby also put $2 million into another Democratic nonprofit called America’s Families First, which operated as a donor fund and redistributed what it raised. It gave $2.3 million to the get-out-the-vote group America Votes, $1.5 million to Democratic super PACs, $461,000 to Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund and $370,000 to Citizens for Strength & Security Action Fund, among others. All of these named groups were active in supporting Democrats in the 2010 election.

Finally, PhRMA boosted Sen. Baucus, the main congressional architect of health care reform, by sending $500,000 to an obscure group called Montana Growth. In 2013, the little known group funneled $400,000 of that money over to the Stronger Montana Fund and Montana Hunters & Anglers Action, both Democratic dark-money nonprofits, to support a possible re-election campaign by Baucus.

The Stronger Montana Fund put $275,000 into a pro-Baucus issue ad early in 2013, but Baucus ultimately chose not to run again. He has since been named U.S. ambassador to China by President Obama.

One big-money Democratic operative said that while both sides accept this new corporate cash, Democrats have a harder time getting it -- there are only so many PhRMA deals on the table.

Republicans have been increasingly moving their fundraising and spending away from super PACs and toward dark money groups, which allow them to conceal the source of the money.

The Democratic operative guessed that at this point, Republicans may be taking in 100 corporate dollars for every one that reaches Democrats. "We don't really know -- it's at least 10-to-1." She added, "The truth is Democrats don't get much [501(c)(4)] corporate money, and that's because their interests often aren't aligned. I'd gladly have c4s shut down -- that would be a huge boon for us."

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