Mitt Romney, who has criticized Newt Gingrich for peddling influence in Washington, relies on his own array of politically connected lobbyists to help him raise money and advise his campaign on political strategy and policy.
Romney raised $1.6 million from 14 lobbyists who gathered checks from their friends and associates in the last half of 2011. These “bundlers’’ include lobbyists for Goldman Sachs, Barclays, and Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris.
Romney’s political and policy advisers include lobbyists for Sallie Mae, the student lender; Alcoa, the aluminum producer; and Walmart.
And on Thursday, Romney is hosting a series of “policy roundtable meetings’’ at the Marriott in Washington, where lobbyists, industry players, and others who raise at least $10,000 for his campaign can join his advisers for discussions on education, energy, health care, defense, and infrastructure.
The Romney campaign declined to comment. But the involvement of lobbyists in his operation illustrates how corporate and Washington interests are rallying around the former Massachusetts governor, betting that he may be president next year.
“It’s not lobbying; it’s potentially much more influential than lobbying,’’ said Charles Fried, a Harvard Law School professor and former solicitor general in the Reagan administration. “If your man makes it, then you’ve hit the jackpot.’’
Fried, who recently cochaired a bipartisan panel for the American Bar Association that recommended toughening lobbying rules, said the dangers of lobbyists raising money for and advising candidates are clear.
“If you’ve got someone who gives you barrels full of money, you find their positions become more persuasive,’’ he said. “That’s human nature, and it’s more than just human nature. The incentives are obvious: If you begin to reject their position, that turns off the spigot.’’
Most presidential candidates, nevertheless, turn to lobbyists to help them navigate Washington, round up endorsements, formulate policy, and tap their vast networks of donors. “None of this is mysterious, surprising, new, or unique to Romney,’’ Fried said.
Thomas M. Susman, director of government affairs at the American Bar Association, said lobbyists, because they are by nature political animals, enjoy participating in presidential campaigns, in the same way sports fans would jump at the chance to play for their favorite teams.
Susman has experience in the many sides of lobbying, some of it controversial.
A decade ago, when Gingrich signed his $1.6 million consulting contract with Freddie Mac, he hired Susman to help him navigate the lobbying laws and ensure that the former speaker would not have to register as a lobbyist. Now, as a Bar Association official, Susman said, he worries about the influence of lobbyists in elections.
“You don’t need to argue that it has a corrupting influence to condemn it as undermining public confidence in the system and giving rise to the inevitable reciprocal favors that [politicians] will give in office,’’ he said.
Lobbyists take great offense at the suggestion that their work can undermine the political process.
Martin B. Gold, a prominent lobbyist and former Republican Senate aide, said he believes the vast majority of lobbyists are honest people offering honest advice. Candidates, he said, need to screen out bad actors.
“The stakes are higher, but it’s no different in principle than knowing your customer, or knowing who you trust in a business relationship,’’ said Gold, who supported Jon Huntsman for president but is now unaligned.
Gold, who said he knows people working on the Romney campaign, said: “I’m certain they’re sensitive to these considerations, because if you aren’t, you will get that odd case that shows up that taints you, and you’ve got to avoid that.’’
Five years after the Jack Abramoff scandal riveted Washington, exposing how one powerful lobbyist sought to influence members of Congress with campaign donations and lavish trips, the political world is again in the midst of a debate about lobbying.
President Obama, in his State of the Union address last month, proposed banning lobbyists who bundle campaign contributions for Congress from lobbying Congress.
Obama has also refused to accept donations from lobbyists and corporate political action committees, although he takes donations from employees of lobbying firms - people like Gingrich who exert influence as consultants or strategists but do not meet the technical definition of a lobbyist. At least 15 bundlers active in that side of the lobbying industry have raised more than $5 million for Obama’s campaign, according to the New York Times.
Romney has hammered Gingrich for his work for Freddie Mac, arguing that the former speaker was effectively lobbying for the government-backed mortgage giant, which many Republicans blame for the collapse of the housing market.
“It is not right,’’ Romney told Gingrich in the Jan. 23 debate in Tampa. “You have a conflict. You are being paid by companies at the same time you’re encouraging people to pass legislation which is in their favor.’’
By contrast, Romney said, that as the head of Bain Capital, an equity investment firm, “I didn’t have an office on K Street. I wasn’t a lobbyist.’’
In the 2008 primary, Romney took a similarly hard line, criticizing his rival John McCain for relying on the advice of lobbyists such as Charlie Black and Vin Weber, a former Minnesota congressman.
“I don’t have lobbyists at my elbows that are arguing for one industry or another industry,’’ he said that year. “And I do not have favors that I have to repay to people who have been in Washington for years.’’
Now, Weber and Black are advising Romney. Weber, whose clients include Alcoa and Sallie Mae, is Romney’s special adviser on foreign and economic policy. Black, whose clients include Walmart and General Dynamics, helps with political strategy. Other lobbyists work on policy and fund-raising.
An invitation to Romney’s policy round-table on Thursday lists Patrick J. Durkin, a lobbyist and managing director of Barclay’s Capital who bundled $606,950 for Romney in the last half of last year, as the financial services “industry chair.’’
William D. Hansen, a former federal education official who has lobbied for the Motion Picture Association of America, is listed as the education chair.
And the health care discussion lists several industry figures as “roundtable hosts,’’ each of whom has agreed to raise at least $15,000 for Romney, according to one host.
They include John Castellani, chief executive of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; and Marc-Anthony Signorino, who has lobbied for the National Manufacturers Association.
Black defended the involvement of lobbyists in the Romney campaign, saying they are not doing it to generate business.
“All of a sudden, there’s something wrong with it,’’ he said. “But I have yet to see, historically, how it has a bad influence on a president or a candidate.’’Levenson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.