Private Citizens Take Troubles to Lobbyists

In June 2008, Dallas-area mortgage banker Rodney Anderson ran into an obstacle: An older couple who were longtime clients were having trouble getting a loan for what would be their final big purchase -- a retirement home. The problem: a $150 medical bill that lowered their credit score by 120 points because it had gone into collection before it was paid.

Anderson had seen cases like this before, but now he decided to act. He began tracking the numbers. He collected consumers' stories on his website. He buttonholed anyone who would listen, arguing that the federal law requiring paid medical collections to remain on credit records for seven years is unfair to consumers perplexed by the error-prone process of medical billing.

Then, Anderson tried a tactic typically deployed only by savvy political insiders: He hired a federal lobbyist. Two years and $400,000 of his own money later, a bill that would erase medical collections from credit reports within 30 days of payment has 101 sponsors in the House. A similar bill that would remove the debt after 45 days recently was introduced in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Anderson is among the dozens of private citizens who hire lobbyists each year. They range from victims of Bernard Madoff's infamous Ponzi scheme to William Weld, a former two-term governor of Massachusetts. Others want presidential pardons or congressional help with immigration troubles.

In the first three months of this year, 16 individuals hired lobbyists, according to data culled from lobbying records for USA TODAY by the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Twenty-six private citizens took similar action in the first three months of 2009, pumping $795,000 into their lobbying activity. That is minuscule compared with the $851.9 million that big business, unions and others paid lobbyists to influence the course of public policy during the same period.

Although their budgets are dwarfed by those of powerful interest groups, these individuals believe "you need a lobbyist to be heard," said Meredith McGehee of the non-profit Campaign Legal Center. "The bad news is that, to a certain degree, that's true."

Private citizens with lobbyists include:

• Hedge-fund founder Julian Robertson, who has spent nearly $1.6 million since 2007 on lobbying to push climate-change legislation. Robertson declined to be interviewed, but his spokesman Fraser Seitel said Robertson thinks "it's critically important for the U.S. to adopt a cap-and-trade system."

• Maureen Ebel of West Chester, Pa., who lost more than $5 million in Madoff's multibillion-dollar swindle. Ebel is represented on a pro-bono basis by Helen Davis Chaitman, a commercial litigator from New York, who also saw her entire retirement savings — she won't say how much — vanish in the scam. Chaitman said she has met with about 75 lawmakers and aides in the past nine months.

Ebel, 61, a widow, said she has struggled to support herself since Madoff's crime was discovered in 2008. She sold her vacation condo in Florida and found work tending to the elderly mother of a friend and cleaning the woman's house. Another job, as an office manager, ended in December when she was laid off. She is taking classes to restore her license as a registered nurse, which lapsed in the tumult surrounding the death of her physician husband in 2000. "I'm no spring chicken, and I'm starting over," Ebel said. "This is not how I imagined the end of my life would be."

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