Overlap between donors to the Center for American Progress (CAP) and the client list of the lobbying firm founded by John Podesta, CAP’s outgoing chairman, has some wondering whether the think tank acts as an extension of Podesta’s influence peddling.
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Twelve of CAP’s corporate contributors in those two years were also clients of the Podesta Group, founded by John Podesta and his brother Tony.
It is not known how much these corporations collectively donated to CAP. However, they paid the Podesta Group more than $5.8 million for lobbying services, according to disclosure forms, during the years in which they were also contributing to CAP.
"There are innumerable ways that money can be used to help shape policy and one of those is supporting a nonprofit connected to the politician or political operative," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
"Gifts from monied interests to politicians' pet charities always merit added scrutiny and concern, but the same concerns apply to political operatives and advisers," Krumholz said. "They wield influence, too."
Podesta’s influence over federal policymaking is set to increase dramatically as he takes a post at the White House, where he will serve as a "senior counselor" to President Barack Obama.
According to the New York Times, Podesta, who left his eponymous lobbying firm in the 1990s and was last registered to lobby in 2006, will work on energy and health care policy,
among other issues.
He will "arrive at the White House after having run an organization that has taken millions of dollars in corporate donations in recent years and has its own team of lobbyists who have pushed an agenda that sometimes echoes the interests of these corporate supporters," the Times said.
One of those supporters, Blue Shield of California, donated to CAP in both 2012 and 2013, the only years for which full corporate donor lists are available.
Public disclosure filings show that the company also inked a deal with the Podesta Group in 2011 and has paid the firm $780,000 since then to lobby Congress and the Department of Health and Human Services, primarily on legislation and regulations affecting the Affordable Care Act.
Blue Shield of California’s strong support for the law, commonly known as Obamacare, dovetails with CAP’s position.
"As strong supporters of healthcare reform, we will continue to advocate for full and effective implementation of the law while seeking additional ways to make coverage more affordable," the company said in a statement last year.
It has also supported other groups that back Obamacare, including the Tides Center, the 501(c)(3) arm of the left-wing umbrella group the Tides Foundation. The Blue Shield of California Foundation gave Tides more than $3 million in 2011, the last year for which a 990 form is publicly available.
CAP hosted an event in January 2012 titled, "Illustrating the Success of Health Care Reform." One of the event’s panelists was Liz Fowler, then a special assistant to the president for healthcare and economic policy at the National Economic Council.
Fowler left the White House in December to join pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson. She works in the company’s in-house government relations office, but it also has additional lobbying firms on retainer—including the Podesta Group.
The firm secured that account in 2011. The next year, Johnson & Johnson donated to CAP.
The Podesta Group also represents a handful of prominent defense contractors, including GE Aviation, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman. Those companies have collectively paid the firm $1.67 million since last year.
All four also donated to CAP in 2012. GE and Northrop Grumman continued giving in 2013.
CAP’s work on major budget issues presents a potential conflict, the Times noted in its piece on Podesta. CAP received contributions from defense contractors "as the nonprofit group at times bemoaned what it called the harmful impact of major reductions in Pentagon spending."
Observers note that this is nothing illegal or even out of the ordinary, nor do they say it suggests CAP was in hock to its corporate supporters. However, one former employee recently said those supporters routinely swayed its policy work.
Rather, observers said it suggests that some corporations saw donations to CAP as a means to further sway federal policy to their benefit, hence the overlap with Podesta Group clients.
"Corporate donors view the funds they give to CAP as an investment or as protection money," said Matthew Vadum, senior editor of Organization Trends at the Capital Research Center.
"CAP is the biggest game in town. What amoral big business wouldn't want a piece of that action?" Vadum said.
Other Podesta Group clients that have donated to CAP since 2012 include Google, Novo Nordisk, Quest Diagnostics, T-Mobile, Walmart, and Wells Fargo. Neither the think tank nor the lobbying firm returned requests for comment.