Even as Sen. Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign was blasting Sen. Barack Obama for his ties to the Exelon Corporation, the firm of Mark Penn, Clinton's chief strategist, was earning hundreds of thousands of dollars from the very same nuclear energy giant.
This past week, Burson Marsteller, Penn's powerhouse consulting agency, was paid more than $230,000 by Exelon to help renew a nuclear energy license in New Jersey, the Huffington Post has learned. The payment was for work that took place over several months, and Burson is still employed by the company.
"They did some work for us in New Jersey between June and November," said Craig Nesbit, vice president of communications for Exelon Generation, a subsidiary. "That bill was invoiced on December 12 and it just took that long to pay these things... We still are paying them a little bit but it is ramping down."
It has been public knowledge that Exelon is a client of Burson. But news of the recent payment comes less than two weeks after the Clinton campaign, and Penn himself, took Obama to task for what they implied was preferential treatment for the company.
On February 3, 2008, the New York Times reported that Obama had backed away from criticism of Exelon following revelation that the company had not disclosed radioactive leaks at one of its nuclear plants. The Illinois Senator, the paper noted, chose to push legislation that offered guidance, rather than mandates, for prompt reporting of leaks. Moreover, the Times added, Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod worked as a consultant to Exelon, and "since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Mr. Obama's campaigns for the United States Senate and for president."
Following the article's publication, the Clinton campaign pressed the notion that Obama had succumbed to pressure from his donors, even though Clinton had supported the bill. In a radio ad before the Nevada primary, the campaign used Obama's Exelon ties to cast doubt about his opposition to Yucca Mountain, a proposed nuclear waste depository. And in a memo to "interested parties," Penn himself highlighted the Times story, arguing that what Obama says is often contradicted by what journalists find "when they dig into the facts."
Nine days later, Penn's firm, Burson Marsteller, received $230,627.05 from Exelon -- roughly $3,000 more than the sum of Obama's campaign donations from Exelon employees -- for work deemed "Public Affairs."
Representatives from Burson confirmed the payment. While Howard Wolfson, a spokesperson for the Clinton campaign, said there were no political ties between Sen. Clinton and the company: "I dont recall Exelon sitting in Senator Clinton's office watering down legislation designed to protect people from nuclear leaks," he said.
The information about Penn's financial links to Exelon was not provided by any political campaign.
Burson, it should be noted, is not technically working for the Clinton campaign. But a subsidiary Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates is, having been paid more than $4.3 million so far. Moreover, Penn is Clinton's highest-ranking adviser and continues to hold the title of "worldwide CEO of Burson-Marsteller."
That he would have financial ties to Exelon, watchdog groups say, is of political significance.
"I think it is not that unusual to see advisers to all of the candidates also advising various interests and it is undoubtedly a tough thing for the candidates to be able to filter whether or not the advice they get from people who also lobby is going to be truly impartial advise," said Josh Israel, a senior researcher for the Center for Public Integrity's "Buying of the President 2008."
"Hopefully, the candidates will take it with a grain."
According to Nesbit, the work Burson undertook on Exelon's behalf was primarily to generate local political support for nuclear energy. In August 2007, the New Jersey Affordable, Clean, Reliable Energy Coalition (NJ ACRE) was created to help secure the renewal of the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant's operating license. Around that time, Burson set up speaking engagements and events for Patrick Moore, a Green Peace founder who now supports nuclear energy, to advocate on the plant's behalf. They also conducted at least one poll on the subject.
Criticism of renewing the Oyster Creek license has not been absent. Local officials and residents have worried that the nuclear station did not have a clear evacuation route in case of an accident, and was hazardous for local water life.
During the presidential campaign, Obama has said the he would like to explore nuclear power as an energy option while Clinton says she's "agnostic" on the issue.
Sam Stein is a Political Reporter at the Huffington Post, based in Washington, D.C. Previously he has worked for Newsweek magazine, the New York Daily News and the investigative journalism group Center for Public Integrity.
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