Andrew Stern is a close friend of President Barack Obama. That’s hardly a revelation. His organization, the Service Employees International Union, spent more than $60 million to get him elected. And President Obama has made clear that he is fully committed to promoting the political goals of organized labor. But Stern may have gone outside federal law in his nearly two dozen documented White House visits through this mid-September. The SEIU president is a former registered lobbyist, but has been acting as though he is still one. A prominent Washington, D.C. nonprofit group and one of its affiliates recently sent a long letter recommending a federal investigation into the possibility that he’s blurred the distinction between political support and lobbying.
The White House keeps a log of all visitors to its premises, recording information on the date, time, persons visited, location, total number of attendees, and purpose of the meeting. On October 30, the White House released its visitor log for the period January 20-July 13, 2009. Records show Stern visited 22 times, more than any other person. On six of those occasions, he met with the President of the United States (“POTUS”). Most of the events either had no stated purpose or were group meetings. This fact has not escaped major media. Here’s how an article by Jeff Zeleny in the October 31 New York Times puts it: “The visit tally underscores the clout that S.E.I.U. and Mr. Stern enjoy in this White House, something that has generated consternation at times among business groups and envy among rival unions. By contrast, Richard L. Trumka, the new president of the AFL-CIO, visited seven times in the same period.”
But Stern’s visits also may be illegal. Stern had been a union lobbyist until January 2007, when he terminated his registration. Thus, if his meetings with the president and/or White House staff rose to the definition of “lobbying,” as defined by the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) of 1995, then he operated outside the law. Two Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organizations, Americans for Tax Reform and an affiliate, the Alliance for Worker Freedom, think he did. The respective heads of these organizations, Grover Norquist and Brian Johnson, wrote a highly detailed letter, dated November 13, requesting an investigation of Stern’s contacts with the current administration. The letter, addressed to three persons – Acting U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia Channing D. Phillips, U.S. Senate Secretary Nancy Erickson, and U.S. House of Representatives Clerk Lorraine C. Miller – stated, “We urge you to immediately investigate Mr. Stern’s activities…to assess whether a violation of the LDA has occurred and if so, what appropriate enforcement actions should be taken.”
At issue here is the applicability of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. That legislation requires all lobbyists to register with the Clerk of the House of Representatives and the Secretary of the Senate, each of whom in turn must report any noncompliance to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Failure to comply may result in civil penalties of up to $200,000 and five years in prison. The law defines “lobbyist” this way:
The term “lobbyist” means any individual who is employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation for services that include more than one lobbying contact, other than an individual whose lobbying activities constitute less than 20 percent of the time engaged in the services provided by such individual to that client over a six-month period.
“Lobbying activity” under the law, moreover, refers to time spent on lobbying contacts as well as time spent by that person on any efforts to support his or someone else’s contacts, such as preparation, research and coordination of others’ lobbying. Any meeting with a “covered” public official, such as a U.S. senator, ought to arouse concern. The ultimate question is this: Did Andrew Stern spend at least 20 percent of his White House-related time doing things that qualify as lobbying? If he did, then his failure to register as a lobbyist would have rendered his activity illegal.
Norquist and Johnson believe Stern served as a lobbyist all but in name. They cite several sources, the primary one being the White House log:
Since White House personnel, including the President and Vice President, are considered “covered” officials under LDA, all of Mr. Stern’s communications with them during these 22 visits covering 20 days would constitute “lobbying contacts.” The time spent at the White House also constitutes “lobbying activity” time which must be captured for determining whether Mr. Stern spent more than 20% of his time during any calendar quarter in lobbying. (Incidentally, in 2008, on his own LM-2 disclosure form filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Mr. Stern disclosed that he spent at least 24% of his time on lobbying and political activities, without separating those two activities out).
But Stern also lobbied Congress, something verified in published sources:
(O)n June 3, 2009, Roll Call reported that “SEIU President Andy Stern has met with [Congressman] Sestak and [Senator] Specter as part of his regular legislative meetings.” This indicates that Mr. Stern has meetings with Members and staff of Congress on a regular basis and that he met at least once with the identified Senator and Congressman during the second quarter of 2009. All Senators, Congressmen and staff are “covered” officials under LDA, and therefore meetings to discuss legislation or policy with such officials constitute lobbying activity within the meaning of the statute. In addition, the time Mr. Stern spent planning for such meetings, following up on those lobbying contacts, scheduling such contacts and traveling to and from meetings all constitute lobbying activity that must be included to determine whether Mr. Stern met the 20% threshold for reporting under the statute.
On May 26, 2009, Politico reported that Mr. Stern participated in an AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) roundtable with Senator Kent Conrad. In the same story, Anna Burger, SEIU Secretary-Treasurer, announced that the union would sponsor 100 events in 16 states on health care reform and that Congress “will be hearing from us in big ways.”
The authors also note that Stern has declared his lobbying activities by his own words:
Further, Mr. Stern is an avid user of Twitter to announce his lobbying activities. On June 17, Mr. Stern Tweeted, “Great discussion last 2 days with many Senators. Complicated issue but commitment to change. All understand – longer we wait worse it gets.” On May 18 he Twittered, “At Springsteen Concert. Lots of fundraisers in box. Good free choice meetings with key Senators today.” And on June 24 he announced, “Lobbying with Mayor Bloomberg on health care. Leaving Senator Snowe. Mayor big proponent of keeping people healthy and the right public plan.” On April 29, Mr. Stern Twittered that he had met Senator Specter and Secretary Sebelius.
There isn’t much doubt about it: Andrew Stern has lobbied enthusiastically and extensively during this year in his capacity as Service Employees International Union president.
Stern’s office is critical of the Norquist-Johnson request, seeing it as a diversion from providing workers with a voice in health care reform. “Andy Stern spends less than 20 percent of his time talking to elected representatives,” remarked SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette. “He spends 100 percent of his time trying to help workers get a better life.” But this comment is misleading. The primary focus here is Stern’s visits to the White House, not Congress. And the fact that his intentions may be noble doesn’t make him immune from accountability to the law. Though Senate Secretary Erickson and House Clerk Miller in recent years have lacked funding to conduct full probes, they should take seriously the claims of Americans for Tax Reform and the Alliance for Worker Freedom. The price of inaction may be far higher.