South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham raised more money from lobbyists ahead of the 2012 election than any other member of Congress save one — an impressive feat considering he wasn’t on the ballot.
Roughly 10 percent of Graham’s $2.2 million haul, about $223,000, came from lobbyists acting as “bundlers,” a higher percentage than any other member. Bundlers raise money from friends and associates and deliver the checks in a “bundle.”
Only New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who did face opposition in 2012, received more bundled campaign cash from lobbyists — about $227,100 — less than 2 percent of his total contributions, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Federal Election Commission filings.
Graham’s bundlers include organizations and lobbyists whose positions Graham has supported. Among them are an energy giant, the film industry’s main trade association and a former U.S. ambassador who represents clients that would benefit from the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Tops on the list, however, were GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his “victory fund,” which accepted more than $17 million from lobbyist-bundlers. Six individuals raised at least $1 million apiece for Romney’s unsuccessful efforts, as the Center for Public Integrity previously reported.
In all, a dozen candidates and political committees raised at least $100,000 from lobbyist-bundlers ahead of the 2012 election, including the leadership PAC of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
Money well spent?
According to FEC filings, Graham’s No. 1 lobbyist-bundler during the past two years was SCANA Corp., a South Carolina-based energy company that ranked among Fortune’s 500 largest as recently as 2011.
The corporation was credited with bundling $84,650 for Graham and its political action committee gave him an additional $9,000. During the same period, SCANA Corp., with Graham’s help, was angling for permission to build new nuclear power generators.
In February 2012, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved the first nuclear reactor construction permits in more than three decades. A month later, when it awarded two of them to the South Carolina Electric & Gas Company, a SCANA Corp. subsidiary, Graham hailed the action.
“We worked for years to see these reactors approved, and I’m very pleased this long-sought goal has finally been achieved,” he said in a press release at the time.
Officials with SCANA Corp., which spent nearly $2 million on federal lobbying during the two-year period, declined to comment.
Kevin Bishop, Graham’s communication director, denies that campaign contributions influence the senator’s decision-making process.
“People who contribute to Sen. Graham support his policies, views and leadership on issues important to South Carolina and the United States,” Bishop wrote in an email to the Center for Public Integrity.
Graham has likewise supported the interests of many of lobbyist David Wilkins’ clients.
Wilkins, the former South Carolina House speaker who served as the U.S. ambassador to Canada under President George W. Bush, ranked as Graham’s second-largest lobbyist-bundler during the 2012 election cycle, credited with bringing in $61,500.
During the past two years, Wilkins’ clients included the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Alberta Energy, the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan and Nexen Inc., an oil and gas company based in Alberta that was purchased in February by the Chinese.
All have interests in the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which Graham backs.
Together, the entities spent a combined $2.4 million lobbying the U.S. government during the past two years, records show.
In 2010, Graham told a Canadian newspaper that he was “going to do everything I can to make sure that oil sands production is not impeded because of U.S. policy.”
A year later, he said that rejecting the proposal would be “one of the biggest energy policy blunders in our history.”
Last year, he co-sponsored legislation that sought congressional authority to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.
While the Canadian companies may benefit from Graham’s support, only employees or agents who are U.S. citizens can legally make contributions to the senator’s campaign.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina State Ports Authority reported spending $140,000 on lobbying through Wilkins’ firm during the past two years. Graham has pushed for the harbor in Charleston, S.C., to receive federal funding for deepening shipping channels. Last year, it was among a handful of port projects expedited by President Barack Obama.
Wilkins, who has also personally donated $5,000 to Graham’s re-election campaign, says that bundling does not play a role in his lobbying strategy for clients.
“These contributions came from friends of mine and Sen. Graham’s,” he said, adding that he and Graham have been “good friends” for decades.
“None of these contributions came from my clients,” he continued, adding that he has “never asked” Graham “for a specific vote or to take a certain position.”
Graham, too, collected $18,000 from the Motion Picture Association of America, which is headed by his former Senate colleague Chris Dodd, a Democrat who represented Connecticut.
During the past two years, the industry trade group spent more than $4 million on federal lobbying, with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) ranking among its top concerns. Graham was a co-sponsor of PIPA, and he continued to tout his support of “protecting intellectual property rights” after online activists help sink the legislation in January 2012.
Representatives of the MPAA, which is not affiliated with Wilkins, did not respond to requests for comment.
Party committees benefit
Unlike Romney and the Republican National Committee, Obama’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee prohibited registered lobbyists from bundling contributions or personally donating.
But other Democratic Party organizations had no such ban, and they outperformed their GOP counterparts.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee collected nearly three times more cash from lobbyist-bundlers ($2.8 million) than the National Republican Senatorial Committee ($1 million).
Additionally, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee collected roughly $617,000 thanks to fundraising efforts by lobbyists, while the National Republican Congressional Committee raised $455,000.
Reporting of bundling by lobbyists was required by a 2007 law prompted by the scandal surrounding lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who pleaded guilty to corruption charges and ultimately served three-and-a-half years in federal prison.
Obama urged Congress in his State of the Union address last year to prohibit lobbyists from bundling campaign cash for federal candidates.
Monte Ward, the president of the American League of Lobbyists who is not a bundler himself, says such legislation “would have a hard time passing muster in the courts,” citing First Amendment concerns.
Craig Holman, a lobbyist for the consumer rights group Public Citizen, supports the idea, arguing that bundling is a way for special interests to “buy a seat at the table.”
However, Holman says it has been difficult to find Republican lawmakers willing to work on the issue.
For his part, Graham is prioritizing gun and immigration issues, according to spokesman Bishop, not campaign finance reform.
Read more in Federal Politics
White House hopefuls from yesteryear still awash in red ink
Lawmakers’ fear may not be justified, but recent votes reveal that it still exists