Private Citizens Take Troubles to Lobbyists

Dozens have hired federal lobbyists for help with immigration, credit scores.

June 1, 2010, 9:40 AM

June 1, 2010 -- 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."

In what Madoff victims count as an early victory, the IRS eased its rules on theft losses to allow Ponzi scheme victims to claim tax dedications on the majority of their losses, enabling Ebel and others to collect refunds.

• Weld, the Republican former governor, hired Lanny Davis, special White House counsel to President Clinton, to lobby on his behalf. Weld alleges that an Education Department official unfairly triggered the demise of a trade college run by Weld. He has spent $50,000 on lobbying, records show.

Weld, a federal prosecutor in the 1980s, had led a criminal investigation against the former employer of the Department of Education official whose office supervised the Kentucky-based Decker College. Weld claims that an accreditation agency canceled its approval of Decker's programs under pressure from the official. When Decker lost accreditation, it fell into bankruptcy. Davis wants the department to investigate.

U.S. Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton told USA TODAY that the official's work was "unbiased" and said department officials "do not plan on taking any further steps."

For his part, Weld said he has discovered the limits of his political influence. "It's been very frustrating because you can't get answers," he said. "I had been accustomed to getting answers. But I guess when you are out, you are out."

Anderson, 44, a political newcomer, has seen his idea take off. On the recommendation of a business contact, he hired Larry LaRocco, a former Idaho Democratic congressman-turned-lobbyist.

LaRocco and a lawyer with banking experience helped turn the idea into a legislative proposal, which LaRocco took to aides on a House subcommittee that oversees consumer-credit issues. Ohio Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy, a first-term Democrat, sponsored the bill. "People who are paying off medical debt should not be penalized," she said.

Not everyone supports the plan. Anne Fortney, a former Federal Trade Commission official who has testified against the change, said unpaid bills, including medical debts, that require the intervention of a collection agency help lenders predict whether consumers will pay future bills on time.

Anderson insists he's pursuing the project to help average people, such as Doug Wickwire, 57, from Lucas, Texas, who co-owns a company that builds trade-show exhibits. He discovered this year that he would be hit with $8,500 in fees to refinance his home because of three paid medical collections, all less than $200. "I feel like I'm getting screwed around by the system," he said.

"Is it going to be good for business? Potentially," Anderson said of the bill. "Am I going to make up my investment? Probably not."

LaRocco, who has lobbied for more than a decade, said he has never represented a private citizen before. Anderson has proved a quick study, going from political novice to checking the Library of Congress' bill-tracking site each day, LaRocco said. "Now, he calls me up to say, 'Hey, we've just added another co-sponsor.'