Tony Podesta: Turning Change Into Dollars
Tony and Heather Podesta basked in the praise
when they donated the iconic, five-foot tall "Hope" portrait of Barack
Obama to the National Portrait Gallery just before Inauguration Day.
But to those who hoped Obama would reduce the influence of lobbyists in
Washington, there was also something uniquely depressing about the gift -- because the Podestas are exactly the sort of K Street powerbrokers candidate Obama railed against.
And while Obama's presidency so far has in many ways failed to live
up to his campaign poster, it's been a cash cow for the Podestas, who
have been able to leverage their insider status into a slew of new
high-paying clients. The husband-and-wife lobbyist couple have become
icons themselves -- of the lobbying industry's imperviousness to
Obama's change agenda.
In just the first nine months of the year, the couple's separate
lobby shops have already made more money than in all of 2008, according
to disclosure forms filed with Congress. Heather Podesta's firm,
Heather Podesta + Partners, surpassed last year's total of $4.7 million
with $5.1 million in lobbying income.
Tony Podesta's firm, the Podesta Group, has already reported nearly
$19 million from more than 130 clients -- blowing last year's
full-year-total, a record high of $16 million, out of the water. He's
registered 50 new clients -- way up from the average clip of 20 new
clients a year for previous decade.
Tony Podesta declined interview requests from the Huffington Post.
But in March, he told Legal Times what parts of his business he
expected would prosper under the Obama change regime:
"The president has signaled defense acquisition reforms, defense
budget cuts...The Hill will take up those issues, so there's a lot of
work in that field," he said. "We're doing a lot more work in financial
services than we had done previously, and also doing more health care
work and more energy work."
The Podesta Group's biggest boost appears to have come from the
health industry. The firm reported lobbying on health issues for 32
clients that have paid $5.1 million for lobbying so far this year, up
from $3.8 million from 18 clients in all of 2008.
Twenty-three clients focused on defense issues -- including seven
new ones -- paid the Podesta Group $3.2 million, a 60 percent increase
The firm took in $2.2 million this year from clients concerned with
energy issues, compared to $1.8 million from seven clients in 2008. And
when it came to financial issues, the Podesta Group reported billing 17
clients $2.1 million this year, up from $1.3 million from seven clients
(The numbers may be somewhat imprecise as the firm often lobbies for
any given client on more than one issue. And it only accounts for
direct lobbying of the federal government, not for public relations
For their money, those clients get a small army of former
congressional staffers and Obama campaign officials who can tell them
what's happening behind the scenes on the Hill, and can plead their
case with former colleagues. From the Podesta Group's website:
"Podesta Group professionals have experience in every aspect of the
legislative process as well as expertise in public relations...We
understand the politics and publicity that determine our clients' fate
in Washington, and we have a track record to prove it."
What the website doesn't mention, because it doesn't have to, is
that Podesta's brother, former Clinton administration honcho John
Podesta, chaired Obama's transition and remains a top adviser.
Tony Podesta has said that he'd never use the family connection to
win favors for clients. But from a business standpoint, it doesn't
really matter. Craig Holman, a lobbyist with Public Citizen, told the
Huffington Post that the appearance is the payoff. "This is the sort of
close family tie that inevitably provides very, very handsome profits
for the lobbying firm," he said.
Heather Podesta took the Podesta name six months into the marriage, she told the Washington Post -- after she learned firsthand how much it could impress folks on the Hill.
"I'm the third husband, but this is the first time she's changed her
name," Tony Podesta told the Post. "That should tell you something."
One of the Podesta Group's biggest new financial-industry clients
this year is Sallie Mae, which hired the firm at a rate of about
$30,000 a month. The student loan giant needs help because the Obama
administration has proposed bypassing government-backed lenders like
Sallie Mae and lending directly to students, which the Congressional
Budget Office estimated would save $94 billion over the next ten years,
and which would pretty much put Sallie Mae out of business. The lender
has long devoted significant resources to lobbying, but this year
expanded its roster of outside firms.
The Podesta principals handling Sallie Mae are former Department of
Education staffer Lauren Maddox and Israel Klein, a former staffer for
Senator Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.)
The measure passed the House in September, despite opposition from four Democrats -- one of whom, Rep. Paul Kanjorski (D-Pa.), was the beneficiary of a fundraising dinner thrown by the Podestas in July.
New clients on the energy front include Duke Energy, a utility
company somewhat sympathetic to the Obama climate change agenda, and
the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which is much less
The ACCCE achieved notoriety
this year after reports that that one of its subcontractors sent forged
letters opposing climate change legislation to members of Congress. The
House launched an inquiry that culminated in lawmakers scolding ACCCE
president Steve Miller in a hearing.
Podesta's new defense clients this year joined the ranks of
longer-standing clients Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Raytheon, and other
stalwarts of the military-industrial complex that reap enormous amounts
of money through the congressional appropriations process. It's another
group for whom change is not a good thing.
The president threatened to veto a defense spending bill unless
lawmakers stripped $1.75 billion in funding for unneeded F-22 fighter
jets. In July, the Senate voted 58 to 40 to kill the funding after an
intense industry lobbying effort.
Despite the veto threat, fourteen Democrats voted to keep funding
the F-22. In the springtime, the Podestas set up fundraisers for three
of them: Patty Murray (Wash.), Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), and Daniel
Inouye (Hawaii). The Feinstein fundraiser was canceled,
however, after the invitation listing Feinstein's committees as the
different courses of a meal was made public. (Guests who made
contributions between $1,000 and $2,500 could order up Feintstein's
"Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course" and "your
choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees" for other
Most of the Podesta Group's health industry clients are drugmakers
and biotech firms. Podesta clients Amgen, Amylin Pharmaceuticals,
Genzyme Corporation, and new signup Eisai are among the Big Pharma
members that stand to benefit from current health care reform proposals
-- particularly after the White House cut an $80 million deal with the industry. For them, change is good.
Tony, Heather, and John Podesta visited the White House 25 times
between the three of them in just the first six months of the year,
according to the White House's recently-released visitor logs -- a better advertisement for Tony and Heather Podesta's firms in the change era than they could possibly ask for.
Julian Hattem contributed to this article.