When Illinois utility Commonwealth Edison wanted state lawmakers to back a hefty rate hike two years ago, it took a creative lobbying approach, concocting a new outfit that seemed devoted to the public interest: Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity, or CORE. CORE ran TV ads warning of a "California-style energy crisis" if the rate increase wasn't approved--but without disclosing the commercials were funded by Commonwealth Edison. The ad campaign provoked a brief uproar when its ties to the utility, which is owned by Exelon Corp., became known. "It's corporate money trying to hoodwink the public," the state's Democratic Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn said. What got scant notice then--but may soon get more scrutiny--is that CORE was the brainchild of ASK Public Strategies, a consulting firm whose senior partner is David Axelrod, now chief strategist for Barack Obama.
Last week, Obama hit John McCain for hiring "some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington" to run his campaign; Obama's aides say their candidate, as a foe of "special interests," has refused to take money from lobbyists or employ them. Neither Axelrod nor his partners at ASK ever registered as lobbyists for Commonwealth Edison--and under Illinois's loose disclosure laws, they were not required to. "I've never lobbied anybody in my life," Axelrod tells NEWSWEEK. "I've never talked to any public official on behalf of a corporate client." (He also says "no one ever denied" that Edison was the "principal funder" of his firm's ad campaign.)