FIRST PAY, THEN PLAY
Mick Mulvaney Met With Lobbyist Donors While at Trump White House
The White House budget director recently recalled a hierarchy of access at his old congressional office. It appears he’s imported that model into the West Wing.
Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s top budget and financial consumer watchdog, had a hierarchy of access in his former congressional office: first were constituents, then lobbyists who’d donated to his campaign, and then, at the bottom, lobbyists who hadn’t.
Mulvaney no longer has constituents. But according to his internal schedule, he’s continued taking meetings with lobbyists and companies who financed his past political campaigns.
At least eight registered lobbyists and six other executives who donated to Mulvaney’s congressional campaigns—or whose companies’ political action committees did the same—got an audience with the South Carolina Republican when he landed atop the Office of Management and Budget. That’s according to a Daily Beast analysis of campaign finance records, lobbying disclosure forms, and OMB visitor logs dating from January 2017 through September 2017.
The findings illustrate how the political structure Mulvaney outlined in his speech this week before a group of banking executives was not simply a system for his congressional office but a maxim for the ways he—like many others in the nation’s capital—conduct political and policy work.
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” Mulvaney said, according to a New York Times report this week. At the top of the hierarchy were his constituents, he explained, adding, “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
The lobbyists who gave to Mulvaney, and who subsequently scored meetings with him at OMB, represented a wide array of companies, many with interests before federal agencies over whose structure and finances the White House budget office holds considerable sway.
Meetings with lobbyist donors began almost immediately after Mulvaney assumed his post at OMB on February 16, 2017. Eight days later, he sat down with the CEO of Delta Airlines and two of its senior government relations executives. One of them, Andrea Newman, then the company’s top lobbyist, personally donated $1,000 to Mulvaney’s campaign in 2014. Delta’s PAC gave the congressman’s re-election efforts $5,000 since then.
That type of access continued through at least early September, the extent of publicly available records on Mulvaney’s internal schedule. On September 5, he had a phone call with David Metzner, a lobbyist with the American Continental Group. Metzner donated $2,000 to Mulvaney’s campaign in 2016.
Some of Mulvaney’s lobbyist powwows appear to have addressed some very specific policy goals. In July 2017, he took a meeting with lobbyist and campaign contributor Gregory Smith of the firm Hobbs Straus Dean & Walker. Among Smith’s clients is the Catawba Indian Nation, which was seeking federal government approval for a new casino in North Carolina. Joining Smith and Mulvaney at the meeting was Wallace Cheves, the owner of Skyboat Gaming, which is working with the Catawba Nation to develop the casino.
Marc Cadin, the chief operating officer of—and registered lobbyist for—the Association for Advanced Life Underwriting (AALU), met with Mulvaney on April 27 and July 17 of 2017. At the latter meeting, he was joined by AALU president Rich DeVita, who donated more than $6,000 to Mulvaney’s campaigns from 2011 through 2016. During the same window, AALU’s PAC gave Mulvaney more than $10,000.
Mulvaney’s schedule, details of which were obtained by ProPublica, paint a portrait of a top government official being pulled in a myriad directions as the Trump administration tried to find its early footing. His days were filled with a mix of press briefings and interviews, conversations with lawmakers, and discussions with other members of the administration as it charted out major tax, budget, and health care initiatives.
But despite these demands, Mulvaney also managed to make time for influential donors—and in particular lobbyists and business leaders from his home state of South Carolina.
Steven Beckham, a registered lobbyist who gave $1,500 to Mulvaney over the course of three elections, met with the OMB Director on March 30, 2017. Along with Beckham was Harris Pastides, the President of the University of South Carolina, an institution for which Beckham lobbied federally.
Another federal lobbyist, David Wilkins, got a meeting in early April 2017. Watkins represents a host of energy, financial services, and health care companies for the firm Nelson Mulllins Riley & Scarborough. He is also based in Greenville, S.C. and gave Mulvaney’s campaign more than $5,000 from 2010 through 2016.
Mulvaney carved out time for two meetings and a phone call with Scott Serota, the president and CEO of the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. Two of that company’s lobbyists have donated to Mulvaney’s campaign, and he’s received huge checks from the PAC run by its South Carolina arm.
Dan Adams, the CEO of the Capital Corporation, a middle market investment firm based in Greenville, South Carolina, met with Mulvaney on June 28, 2017. Prior to then, he donated $12,400 to Mulvaney’s various congressional runs, Adams donated $12,400.
Lex Kerssemakers, the CEO of Volvo, met with Mulvaney on April 26, 2017. No one from Volvo gave to the congressman. But the company does have a new plant in South Carolina, an expansion of which Kerssemakers has overseen. Kerssemakers was also raising major concerns about a proposed border adjustment tax at the time that he scored his sit down. The Trump administration signalled it would drop the proposal the day before the meeting and it formally did a few months later.
Meetings like this raised flags for government ethicists who say that Mulvaney not only copted to having a pay-to-play scheme while in Congress but seems to have engaged in one while working for the president.
“It sounds like Mulvaney is importing his pay to play operation from Congress into the administration,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform programs at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.
“But the problem of public officials serving the wealthy and well-connected isn’t limited to Mick Mulvaney,” Fischer added in an email. “It’s systemic, and demands systemic solutions. Trump knows this, and ran against it—as a candidate, he criticized a system where ‘when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.’ Mulvaney’s words, and apparently his actions, are just unvarnished examples of how the entire political system is tilted in favor of deep-pocketed special interests.”
The Office of Management and Budget did not return a request for comment. Nor did any of those who met with him who were mentioned in this piece.
Mulvaney’s comments about lobbyist access have also drawn the scrutiny of lawmakers concerned about industry influence. In a letter on Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked Mulvaney if his lobbyist access hierarchy has made its way to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which Mulvaney has led on an interim basis since last year.
But not every one of Mulvaney’s meetings fit cleaning into the hierarchical structure which he outlined. For instance, Mulvaney did meet with at least one lobbyist who did not donate to a congressional campaign. That influence-peddler was DeWitt Zemp, who met with the OMB chair on July 26. Zemp isn’t a federally-registered lobbyist. He is a state-based lobbyist for the political consulting firm Southern Strategy Group based in Columbia, South Carolina.
And, on occasion, he met with a prominent GOP moneyman who neither lobbied nor gave to him nor had South Carolina roots. One such meeting took place on April 11, 2017, when Mulvaney met with Steve Wynn, the disgraced casino magnate who, at the time, was still the Republican National Committee finance chair.