“Oldaker loves the game. He loves the political process,” says W. Michael House, head of Hogan & Hartson’s lobby shop and a former Capitol Hill staffer. “People like that, you’re not quite sure where their interests in politics end and the business of lobbying begins.”
THE MAN IN THE PHOTO
At 65, Oldaker sports a graying beard. Friends speak of his charm and humor, talents he displays working a room at a fund-raiser. During a recent interview at his office, just a block from the White House, he was dressed in a white and blue striped shirt with maroon suspenders and a bright orange tie with prints of small giraffes. “I’m wearing this because I’m sticking my neck out talking to you,” he explains with a grin.
His office is comfortable, though hardly large by the standards of most Washington law offices. Behind his desk, the wall is draped with a map of the world. On the left hangs a black-and-white picture of Oldaker standing next to Sen. Kennedy. To the right is a photo of Oldaker with former President Bill Clinton, who appointed him to the National Bioethics Advisory Commission in 1999. On the bookshelf are pictures of family, including a shot of a youthful Oldaker with long hair.
But Oldaker wants to draw attention to another memento of his climb through the ranks of Washington, one that sits just inside his office portal. It is a black-and-white framed picture of former President Richard Nixon surrounded by his advisers at the oval cabinet table in the White House. Among them is Oldaker.
“I bet you didn’t know I worked in a Republican administration,” he says.
It makes for an interesting footnote, but that’s all it is. That brief bipartisan moment, when Oldaker worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Nixon administration, carries little weight these days.
But knowing Democrats can still pay off, even in today’s GOP-dominated landscape. Oldaker’s specialty now is obtaining earmarks on behalf of nonprofits, universities, and hospitals the kinds of causes that make any member of Congress look good.
Oldaker says he doesn’t try to sell his political connections to clients. “I tell everyone, If you think they’ll do something for me, don’t hire me,” he says. “If you think they’ll do something for you, hire me.”
One of Oldaker’s first pursuits when he founded his most recent firm in 2002 was the University of Delaware. It had no lobbyists, and, says Oldaker, “I thought if they had good projects they could do better.”
Oldaker also had a few other connections to the university’s home state. He has been advising Biden since the senator’s failed presidential bid in 1988. And R. Hunter Biden, the senator’s son, is Oldaker’s partner.
So Oldaker drove up to the campus and gave his pitch. The university signed on and has paid Oldaker’s 15-member firm $710,000 in the past four years. The payoff: $24.8 million in earmarks for defense research, a student-exchange program, and a drug-and-alcohol-studies program.
Biden’s chief of staff, Alan Hoffman, who speaks with Oldaker for campaign advice almost weekly, says, “We help University of Delaware the way we would help a whole other host of institutions in Delaware.”
As Oldaker sees it, his success has little to do with whether Biden considers him a friend. “Working in politics, I’ve gotten to know politicians and know what they think. And that helps you figure out where to go,” he says.
Oldaker got his start four decades ago. Born in Chicago and raised in Iowa, he came to Washington in the late 1960s to be part of the civil rights movement, helping the National Urban League quell the violence during the 1968 riots with his friend Douglas Patton, who would later become the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development.
When the cloud of Watergate spread across the capital, Congress passed the first campaign spending rules and created the FEC. Oldaker became one of the agency’s first lawyers, helping redefine the regulations that guide campaigns to this day.
One of his earliest cases involved the Sun Oil Corp. and a decision that allowed the company to solicit political donations from its highest-paid employees. That case paved the way for the large corporate giving that is commonplace today. Oldaker also helped then-Solicitor General Archibald Cox prepare for the government’s failed defense of the agency’s rules in the landmark Supreme Court case Buckley v. Valeo, where the Court upheld the newly crafted limits on campaign contributions.
Oldaker was eventually nominated as FEC general counsel, and during his three-year tenure he helped add teeth to the agency’s enforcement. Under his watch, the FEC handed down rulings against the National Education Association and the American Medical Association. Of course, he wasn’t always successful. The agency lost a major case against the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. But his efforts helped draw the lines for election enforcement for the coming decades.
Then his perspective changed. In 1979, Oldaker left the agency to be general counsel for Kennedy’s presidential bid. The campaign was Oldaker’s first, but after Kennedy lost the Iowa primary to then-President Jimmy Carter, donations began to dry up.
To help the sputtering campaign, Oldaker devised a scheme to keep the campaign afloat one that won him lasting support from the Massachusetts standard-bearer. To skirt limits on contributions, the campaign bought art supplies for leading artists such as Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg, who in turn painted pictures that the campaign used as collateral for bank loans or as incentives at fund-raisers for people to give more money. “Ted Kennedy remembers all the people who stood with him in 1980,” says Anthony Podesta, a Washington lobbyist who worked on the campaign.
That effort invigorated Oldaker. After the election, both Carter and Kennedy were in severe debt, but most of their major donors had already maxed out their giving to their chosen candidate. To help pay off some of the debt, Oldaker and Robert Strauss, a Washington lawyer and former Democratic National Committee chair who had led Carter’s campaign, arranged a joint fund-raiser where Carter’s supporters gave to Kennedy and Kennedy’s supporters gave to Carter, thus avoiding the limits on candidate donations.
|Following a wave of lobbying scandals last year, Congress pledged to reform the money-driven culture of Washington politics. By all accounts, virtually nothing has changed. This summer Legal Times began looking into the role money continues to play inside the Beltway and beyond.
In a four-part series, we delve into how Washington’s influence-peddling community does business and how the free flow of money in the nation’s capital has a significant impact on everything from the laws that are written to the people we put in office.
Part 1, Oct. 9: The Jack Abramoff scandal was the biggest catalyst for lobby reform in years, and Congress reacted with predictable outrage and a slate of reforms. The result: zero legislation, an ever-powerful lobbying community, and a money chase that grows more intense each day.
Part 2, Oct. 16: Even newcomers to political office know that a member of Congress can’t get far without the financial backing of D.C. lobbyists.
Part 3, Oct. 23: Lobbyists often help members get into office and stay there. But that relationship goes two ways. Lobbyists’ campaign work helps them grow closer to the very members who can help their clients.
Part 4, Oct. 30: Lobbying is a business in which you have to pay to play and newcomers have to work hard to catch up. In just a few years one law firm transformed itself from an unknown to an inside-the-Beltway government relations powerhouse.
Anna Palmer will chat with readers at LegalTimes.com about this series from 2 to 3 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31.
“It was all pushing the envelope of what people thought could be done,” Oldaker says, adding that he received some grief from officials at the FEC, but nobody ever brought a case against the scheme. He adds: “Good lawyers will find loopholes. That’s what they do.”
AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME
Over the next 25 years, Oldaker built up relationships with his knack for finding loopholes and strategies as a private-practice lawyer and lobbyist. Oldaker says he’s never solicited a single member of Congress for election law work, and those he’s worked for say they’ve turned to him because of the depth of his election law background.
Among his earliest clients was Rep. Charles Rose (D-N.C.), who brought Oldaker on board to go after then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), whose re-election campaign was effectively running outside advocacy groups to boost his campaign war chest. Oldaker challenged this relationship in court, facing off against John Bolton, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In 1986, Oldaker won.
As he was building relationships defending members of Congress, Oldaker moved closer to Capitol Hill with another side of his business: lobbying.
Beginning with clients such as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, then run by his friend James Mooney, Oldaker became a part of some of the most prominent lobbying battles of the day. By 1986 he was working at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, whose Washington office was then headed by former Democratic National Committee Chairman Charles Manatt. There, Oldaker established himself as someone with political know-how and developed relationships with longtime clients such as FedEx Corp. and the Philip Morris Co.
“Some people are very good at doing the technical stuff,” says Walker Nolan, a lobbyist and Oldaker colleague. “Bill can see all that and then look at which committees, what arguments, and who is going to line up where.”
In 1993, Oldaker headed out on his own, taking a fellow FEC alum, Lynn Utrecht, with him to form Oldaker, Ryan, Philips & Utrecht. For the next five years, the tiny firm blossomed, hitting the $2.3 million mark in 1996. Oldaker represented health care insurers during the Clinton-era effort to secure universal health care. He was also integral to Philip Morris’ effort to craft the 1998 legislation settling multistate smoking litigation against the industry. Oldaker, a liberal Democrat, was an unconventional choice for the tobacco conglomerate, but the company hired him to understand how to gain traction among the members of the more liberal wing of the Democratic party. Oldaker says he didn’t hold back from telling the company it had an image problem. Over time that relationship broke down. And his work for the tobacco industry became fodder for critics when Clinton appointed him to the bioethics commission.
A Philip Morris spokesman declined to comment.
In his spare time, Oldaker started a small stem-cell-research company, leading to his later appointment on Clinton’s bioethics panel.
Just as the firm was reaching its apex, the relationship between Oldaker and his former business prot�g�, Utrecht, broke down as well. Their personalities couldn’t have been more starkly opposite, those who know them say, and the 1998 divorce was among the nastiest in Washington’s legal community. (For instance, though most of the firm went with Utrecht, the lease was in Oldaker’s name. So instead of handing the entire office over, Oldaker sublet the extra office space for the next few years.) Utrecht did not return multiple phone calls.
Once again, Oldaker was back on his own. He briefly paired with Republican William Harris and then, in 2002, Oldaker turned to Hunter Biden and Robert Belair, a former Ford administration official, to create Oldaker, Biden & Belair.
Oldaker has been key to the trial lawyers’ fight to stave off changes to class actions. But his firm, which is aligned with the National Group lobby shop, has focused most of its attention on election law for PACs and appropriations work for clients such as the University of Dubuque, which sits in the state of Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), another Oldaker client. Though earmarks might be a more recent specialty for Oldaker, it doesn’t hurt that three of his clients Reid, Harkin, and Dorgan sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Patty Martin, associate director of government relations for St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, says Oldaker has been able to get federal grants in the defense budget for the university’s early-responders center. Oldaker, she says, has done this by working with members across party lines, including Pennsylvania Reps. Jim Gerlach (R) and Robert Brady (D) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R). “They are constantly working with us and getting us better relations with Congress,” she says.
This year, Democrats might yet have a chance of winning one of the houses of Congress back. To that end, Oldaker has given more than $45,000 to candidates this cycle, the vast majority going to Democrats. He has also organized two Washington fund-raisers for Bob Casey, a former intern of his, who is trying to oust Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). At each, Oldaker raised more than $15,000, and he has headlined at least two fund-raisers this year for Biden, to whose leadership PAC he gave $2,000.
And the requests continue to pour in. Oldaker gets 10 e-mail solicitations a day, and probably 10, 15, or even 20 either faxed or mailed. He gives, he says, to his friends, who sometimes include Republicans. For example, this cycle he gave Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), whose district includes Oldaker client Intermountain Healthcare, $2,500. And though he wishes there was less money in politics, he says he can’t stop giving. “It’s competitive advantage. You at least have to be in there and help your friends because the lobbyists on the other side are helping their friends.”
Oldaker was a core member of Gen. Wesley Clark’s 2004 presidential bid before joining former Sen. John Edwards’ campaign. But he spent the 2004 election in Nevada, watching the polls for Reid. He’s not sure he wants to be out in the field again this cycle. Perhaps he’ll help Joseph “Beau” Biden III, who is running for attorney general in Delaware.
But the campaigns keep asking. Just the other day, Oldaker received an e-mail. It was from Casey’s campaign manager, asking about Oldaker’s plans to join the campaign trail. “They need bodies,” Oldaker explains, brushing off the request as nothing special. For Oldaker, it surely wasn’t.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected]