Lobbyists unlimited in honoring lawmakers

The lobbying reports were required by Congress after former lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted in 2006 that he provided gifts, including a luxury golf trip to Scotland, to then-representative Bob Ney and others in exchange for favors. It is illegal to provide gifts to federal authorities in exchange for official actions, and both Abramoff and Ney, an Ohio Republican, went to prison.

What is more common — and legal — are donations such as the $40,000 AT&T gave in December to the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, which researches Alzheimer's. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., founded the non-profit, which is named for his late mother, and he is the honorary chairman of its board.

These are "not run-of-the-mill charities," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. "These gifts are another way to gain influence with lawmakers."

Last year, the telecommunication industry gave more than $72,000 to non-profits and charities in honor of Rockefeller, who advocated legislation to provide legal immunity to phone companies that participated in the government's anti-terrorism eavesdropping program. The largest donation came from AT&T. At the time, Rockefeller chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped broker a deal on the bill, which passed last year.

Rockefeller oversees the telecom industry as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Claudia Jones, an AT&T spokeswoman, declined comment.

Interviews show the West Virginia Democrat made a direct appeal to another company for a donation to the institute. Consol Energy gave $25,000 to the institute in October after Rockefeller sent a fundraising letter to CEO J. Brett Harvey, says Thomas Hoffman, Consol's senior vice president. The company operates coal mines in West Virginia.

"It would be foolish to think we don't take note of the fact when a member of Congress says, 'Hey, I think this is something you ought to support,' " Hoffman says.

Rockefeller spokeswoman Jamie Smith declines to discuss the solicitation but says there is no connection between the gifts and the senator's official actions.

"If some in Washington think giving to a cause Jay Rockefeller cares about will affect his policy views, they surely don't know him," she said in an e-mail. "His policies are based on the merits of an issue and on what's good for West Virginia and the country — period."

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House energy committee, asked an energy company to donate to a foundation that bears his name. His daughter-in-law, Amy Barton, is the unpaid director.

Utility giant Exelon gave $25,000 to the non-profit last June and $50,000 in 2006, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.

Barton wrote to Exelon CEO John Rowe, seeking the money, says David Brown, Exelon's top lobbyist. The company is one of the nation's largest producers of nuclear energy. Barton has long advocated on the industry's behalf, pushing for the opening of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas.

Barton said he did nothing inappropriate. "There's no personal benefit," he said in an interview. "The money doesn't go to me."

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