Senator Norm Coleman wants to clean up Washington. Really. His press release, dated January 17, says so: "In an effort to increase both transparency and accountability in Congress, Senator Norm Coleman (R-MN) today joined Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Joe Lieberman (D-CT) as a coauthor of the Lobbying Transparency and Accountability Act of 2005 (S. 2128 )."
The LTAA (get a junior staffer to work on an acronym, Senator!) would increase disclosure of travel freebies and other lobbyist interactions, and extend the amount of time that former congressmen and staff would have to wait before taking certain lobbying jobs. "Ensuring the public's trust in government is one of my utmost concerns," Coleman writes on a separate web page titled My Travels as Your Senator. "As the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant and I believe greater transparency in Washington will help alleviate many of these problems."
Coleman's high-profile interest in government ethics follows the snowball of corruption charges rolling into the courts. While the principles and the principals in the case are fairly clear, the constellation of venality can seem cosmic in its scope. In Texas, for instance, the Republican Governor Rick Perry hired Drew Maloney to lobby for the state on Capitol Hill, paying him $180,000 a year in state funds. According to reporting in the Houston Chronicle, Maloney, the former chief of staff for House Republican leader Tom DeLay, proceeded to donate $75,000 to an array of Republican congressional committees. Prior to taking the Texas contract--the state's first hire of an outside lobbyist--Maloney had donated a sum total of $250 to political races. Texas Democrats, according to the Houston paper, have decried the arrangement as a form of money laundering, turning taxpayer dollars into GOP political donations.
Such behavior may be unseemly, but is it just a grotesque imitation of business-as-usual? In the year 2000, the City of St. Paul and Mayor Norm Coleman hired the private Washington law firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy to represent the city in Washington. The city, specifically, was seeking federal support for the redevelopment of the Phalen Corridor. Senate lobbying records indicate that St. Paul paid $80,000 to the lobbyists and the firm's partner Patricia Daley. (In 1998-'99, Hennepin County gave $80,000 to the same firm.)
Ostensibly, it is the job of Minnesota's own congressional delegation to represent the state's interests in Washington D.C. But according to Senator Coleman's communications director Tom Steward, "there are so many federal programs available today that most large urban cities probably do have federal lobbyists.
"At the time," Steward explains, "the senator was a member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and had talked to a number of his colleagues regarding the city's need to have a more aggressive federal presence. The firm of Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy had a national track record of being successful in securing federal appropriations projects in other states. Ms. Daley represented several Midwest cities at the firm, including Akron, Ohio and DeKalb, Illinois, Freeport, Illinois and Palatine, Illinois."
After Daley left Powell, Goldstein to start her own outfit, the St. Paul account traveled with her. Before terminating the arrangement in 2001, the city paid the Daley Policy Group an additional $40,000.
But Coleman's relationship with Patricia Daley wasn't quite finished. In the year 2002, Daley made a pair of $1,000 contributions--on January 8 and August 12--to the senatorial campaign of former St. Paul mayor Norm Coleman.
So what should the voter make of it when a lobbyist who has received $120,000 in contracts maxes out with a $2,000 political donation to the person who helped give her the business? "You could draw one of two conclusions," says David Schultz, a professor at Hamline University and an expert in campaign finance law and ethics. "It is either what you call 'pay to play,' which means in order to be able to successfully bid on contracts you have to basically make political donations. Or you're looking at a classic situation of someone making political donations as a return for a favor."
Could it be that Daley was just a staunch believer in Coleman's qualifications for office? "It's possible she's a big Norm Coleman supporter," Schultz says, "but it looks awfully suspicious in terms of the timing of the contribution." In Schultz's estimation, a candidate "can either not take contributions from parties that he awards contracts to or recuse himself from making decisions when it involves contributors or potential contributors."
Today, Patricia Daley continues to lobby for a variety of municipalities and interests in Illinois, as well as DeKalb County in Georgia. And this geographic specialization seems to guide Daley's campaign giving. Though a former House aide to a New York Democrat, Daley spreads her checks around to both parties these days. Recipients during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles include Republicans Dennis Hastert and Mark Kirk, and Democrats Dick Durbin and Rahm Emanual, all of Illinois. In Georgia, Daley has backed both Republicans Johnny Isakson and Jack Kingston and Democrat John Lewis. (In 2004, she gave $500 to Minnesota democrat Jim Oberstar, a major player in the House's Transportation Committee.)
Though Daley may have appreciated the process of working with Norm Coleman and St. Paul, why does the senator think he received $2,000 from the lobbyist?
"You would need to ask Ms. Daley for the answer to this question," says Coleman spokesman Steward.
Patricia Daley was unavailable to comment. A spokesperson at her office reports that she gave birth last week.
David Schultz is skeptical of Coleman's claims that transparency can restore the shine to Congress' tarnished image. "I think he's a hypocrite on a lot of government ethics issues," Schultz says. "Disclosure is not enough. Disclosure does not solve the conflict of interest. Disclosure does not absolve one of being bought or being corrupted by the money. All it does is say: 'Yeah, I took the money!'"
Meanwhile, in Coleman's recent web posting on government ethics, he stands up for the well-paid workers on K Street. "While I am troubled by the increasing number of lobbyists in Washington, I am not one who is going to suggest that all lobbyists are evil or unethical," he writes. "As with any profession, there are a small number of individuals who abuse the system."
In Coleman's reckoning, it would seem that the system itself is working.
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