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Obama is doing a lot better than Kerry did at getting general counsel donations but, reports Amy Miller, the profession remains divided

Barack Obama and John McCain (pictured) have been running a tight race for the votes of America – and among the country’s top corporate lawyers. McCain has a slight lead in total donations from general counsel (GCs) at Fortune 100 companies. Still, elite GCs are giving significantly more to Obama than they did to Al Gore or John Kerry, the previous two Democratic presidential nominees.

According to a review of general counsel contributions by Legal Week sister title Corporate Counsel, 23 legal chiefs have given McCain $53,250 (£30,400), while 19 have given Obama $47,950 (£27,400). And they are loyal to their favourite – only one GC gave to both candidates. Another legal chief also gave McCain $2,300 (£1,300) more than allowed by federal law, and that donation will probably be returned.

“It shows that general counsel at large corporations are just like everyone else,” says Brett Kappel, an of counsel at Vorys Sater Seymour and Pease in Washington DC, who specialises in election law. “They are evenly split between the two parties.”

The scale of the donations also underlines the extent to which general counsel in the US are typically more involved in politics than their counterparts in Europe.

For our survey of Fortune 100 GCs, we looked at Federal Election Commission (FEC) data as compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), a Washington DC-based, non-partisan research group. At the time of going to press, the CRP had only posted contributions made until 31 July 2008 – before either candidate had received his party’s nomination. These figures include all donations reported by the FEC since the start of the presidential race.

Under federal law, a donor can give up to $2,300 to a single candidate’s primary campaign, and another $2,300 for the general election. However, if candidates accept public financing for the general election, they cannot receive private donations. Because McCain is taking public financing, his donors are now contributing to joint fundraising committees such as a compliance fund that pays his legal bills (up to 5% of compliance fund donations can be used to pay for advertising). These restrictions don’t apply to Obama, who is the first presidential nominee to opt out of the public financing system since it began in 1976.

A few general counsel have given their favoured candidate the maximum donation for both the primary and general election campaigns. Four GCs contributed $4,600 (£2,600) to Obama: Joel Benoliel of Costco Wholesale; Mark Chandler of Cisco Systems; Michael Helfer of Citigroup; and Louise Parent of American Express.

McCain also received the maximum allowance from four general counsel: Rosemary Berkery of Merrill Lynch; Barclay Collins of Hess Corp; Christine Richards of FedEx; and Mark Treanor of Wachovia (who retired in June). Richards actually made three $2,300 contributions to McCain. The senator’s campaign staff did not return requests for comment, but a CRP researcher says that Richards will likely get one of those donations back.

Almost all of the GCs in our survey gave to only one candidate. The exception is Kim Brunner of State Farm Mutual Automotive Insurance Co, who gave $1,000 (£571) to Obama and $1,750 (£1,000) to McCain.

On top of contributing to McCain’s compliance fund, some general counsel are supporting him indirectly by giving to the Republican National Committee (RNC). Four GCs have given a total of $52,100 (£29,700) to the RNC, while two legal chiefs have given $9,500 (£5,400) to the Democratic National Committee. (Under federal law, a donor can give up to $28,500 (£16,300) to any one of the political parties’ national committees). “All that money is going to be used in some fashion to support the candidate,” says Larry Norton, a former general counsel of the FEC who now heads the political law practice group at Womble Carlyle Sandrich & Rice in Washington DC.

Obama has broken records in his overall fundraising, so some lawyers are surprised that he has not collected more bucks from general counsel. McCain’s lead among GCs “is really striking”, says Michael Toner. An outside counsel to McCain’s campaign, Toner was chairman of the FEC in 2006 and now leads Bryan Cave’s election law group in Washington DC.

Toner points out that lawyers generally tend to lean left politically, and according to the CRP, that is true for this presidential election. The CRP’s statistics show that lawyers and lobbyists have donated nearly $57m (£32.5m) to Obama, and just more than $18m (£10.2m) to McCain. However, general counsel may be more conservative because they work for large corporations, Toner says. In 2004, Corporate Counsel looked at campaign donations made by the 50 best-paid general counsel in the country. Twenty-two GCs gave $43,000 (£24,500) to Bush, while four GCs contributed $6,000 (£3,400) to Democratic contender John Kerry. Bush also had a substantial lead in general counsel contributions in the 2000 election.

Obama’s strong showing among GCs this year is just an indication of his overall popularity, Norton says: “Every-body likes to ride with the winner. There’s nothing new about that.”

A version of this article originally appeared in Corporate Counsel, Legal Week’s US sister title.

Revolving doors

Members of President George Bush’s legal team are no doubt scanning the classified ads these days. Trying to figure out where they will land, and how much they’ll get paid, is sheer speculation. But here’s trying.

Michael Mukasey – Attorney general

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