U.S. Attorney Reviews Call for Probe of SEIU Activities With White House, Congress

January 22, 2010 - 6:37 PM
Federal prosecutors are reviewing a possible investigation into one of organized labor's most powerful figures and one of the most frequent visitors to the White House for 2009.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, speaks with the Associated Press during an interview in his Washington office, Friday, Oct. 9, 2009. (AP photo)

(CNSNews.com) – Federal prosecutors are reviewing a possible investigation into one of organized labor’s most powerful figures and one of the most frequent visitors to the White House for 2009.

Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, is no longer a registered lobbyist, but touted his visits at the White House and with other lawmakers on his Twitter account, with messages that include -- “cocktails with prez and VP;” “lobbying with Mayor Bloomberg” and “great discussions last two days with Senators.”

Meanwhile, White House visitor logs show that he visited 28 times during the year. The SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger -- chairwoman of the Change to Win Federation, who was a lobbyist until the end of 2007 -- visited the White House 32 times, according to the White House logs.

The question being asked by a conservative group is whether Stern or Burger spent 20 percent of the work time in a quarterly period lobbying lawmakers and if they failed to report it.

Americans for Tax Reform and its subgroup the Alliance for Worker Freedom sent letters to acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia asking for an investigation whether Stern and Burger violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act, that could carry a penalty of up to five years in prison or a $200,000 fine. The letters were also sent to Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson and Clerk of the House Loraine C. Miller, the two offices that supervise disclosure and reporting rules. 

“I don’t think there is a lot that we can say at this point, other than to say that we continue to review the matter,” Benjamin Friedman, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office, told CNSNews.com.

The Secretary of the Senate’s office -- on Dec. 29 -- informed ATR President Grover N. Norquist and AWF Executive Director Brian M. Johnson that “Ms. Burger has not spent 20 percent of her time on lobbying activities in either 2008 or 2009. Accordingly, we intend to close our file on this matter.”

For its part, the SEIU is dismissive of any allegations of impropriety from its top officials. 

“The charges were meritless,” SEIU spokeswoman Michelle Ringuette told CNSNews.com in a written statement. “We have been informed by the Senate that the complaining parties were notified.”

On Jan. 5, Stern responded to a question from CNN about the complaints from ATR and the AWF.

“We’re going to send them a letter and tell them the truth, which is we’ve complied with the law,” Stern told CNN. “And we assume whenever the investigation is done it will be fine.”

Johnson told CNSNews.com that neither the U.S. Attorney’s office nor the Clerk of the House, which also received the same letters, has responded. The SEIU has not responded either, he said.

“Andy Stern said he would be contacting us with documents and letters proving himself innocent,” Johnson told CNSNews.com. “So far we’ve heard nothing. We have copied everything to the SEIU and their press office that we’ve sent out.”

“Imagine the major consequence if a lobbyist who was deregistered was visiting the Bush White House consistently. All of the leftwing watchdog groups would be denouncing it,” Johnson continued. “Andy Stern is the president of the most powerful union in America. During his visits to the White House, he likely talked about health care, the Employee Free Choice Act – card check. There should be accountability on everybody.”

The Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) defines a lobbyist as “Any individual (1) who is either employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation (2) whose services include more than one lobbying contact; and (3) whose lobbying activities constitute 20 percent or more of his or her services’ time on behalf of that client during any three-month period.”

The law defines “contact” as “Any oral, written or electronic communication to a covered official that is made on behalf of a client,” and defines covered officials as, “A public official includes an elected or appointed official, or an employee of a federal, state or local government in the United States.” Exceptions include a college or university, a government-sponsored enterprise, a public utility. 

The November letter laid out a case for investigating Stern. 

“Mr. Stern was a registered lobbyist for SEIU until January of 2007 when he terminated his registration. For the reasons discussed below it appears that Mr. Stern continued to lobby extensively after he terminated his registered status, and in 2009 devoted so much time on lobbying and related activities that he should have re-registered as a lobbyist under LDA,” the November letter said.

“Failure to file accurate reports or to register under LDA is a violation of the Act, which provides for civil penalties of up to $200,000 and criminal penalties of up to 5 years in prison. Reports must be filed electronically with the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate,” the letter continued. 

Further, 13 days in any given quarter of a calendar year would constitute 20 percent of one’s time on lobbying for a three month quarter, the letter states. According to White House logs, Stern spent at least 11 days in the first quarter and nine days in the second quarter of 2009 visiting the White House. That does not include the time he spent in communication with Congress, or phone calls and written communication. 

Roll Call reported on June 3, 2009 that “SEIU President Andy Stern has met with (Rep. Joe) Sestak (D-Pa.) and (Sen. Arlen) Specter (D-Pa.) as part of his regular legislative meetings.” On May 26, 2009, Politico reported, “In North Dakota, AARP is holding a roundtable with Budget Committee Chairman (Sen.) Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Service Employees International Union President Andy Stern. 

The news reports indicate Stern met regularly with members of Congress. Such meetings would be covered and activity reported under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. 

Further, Stern’s own statements on Twitter (“tweets”) demonstrate lobbying activity, Norquist and Johnson argue in their letter to the U.S. attorney. 

-- At 6:42 a.m. on June 24, Stern announced, “Lobbying with Mayor Bloomberg on health care. Leaving Senator Snowe. Mayor big proponent of keeping people healthy and the right public plan.”

-- At 10:56 a.m., on June 17, Mr. Stern tweeted, “Great discussion last 2 days with many Senators. Complicated issue but commitment to change. All understand-longer we wait worse it gets.”

-- On May 11, Stern sent off several “tweets.” At 6:11 a.m. he wrote, “At White House for meeting with president on health care.” This was followed up with a 9:56 a.m. tweet: “Leaving the White House. Serious, real discussion with great possibilities. Now work to be done by June 1 deadline. Glad we get start (sic) this.” Then, at 9:58 a.m., he wrote: “Great White House meeting with serious, real discussion on cost savings. June 1 deadline for real results. Glad we could get this started.”

-- At 3:50 a.m. on April 29, Stern wrote on Twitter that he had met with Sen. Specter and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and tweeted: “Specter, Sebelius, Washington Capitols, and 100 great days. On a roll Now let’s fire Ken Lewis at B of A (Bank of America) today to keep a great week going.”

He tweeted at 6:07 p.m. on February 18 that he “just left the White House where a group from MoveOn to Chamber of Commerce but mostly progressives had cocktails with Prez and VP.”

In December, Norquist and Johnson asked for a probe into Burger for the same potential violation, alleging she spent more than 20 percent of her time lobbying.

“After de-listing, Burger reported spending an even larger amount of her time, 37 percent, on politics and lobbying activity,” the letter said. “Given her role as the head of the Change to Win Federation and her senior position with SEIU, Burger is almost certain to have more contacts with covered officials during the relevant reporting periods in 2008.”

Burger was appointed in February 2009 to serve on President Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Politico reported on May 26, that “SEIU, a major player in the push for health care reform, is holding 100 events in 16 states, union Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger said.” The story quoted Burger as saying, “While Congress might be going home, it doesn't mean they won't be hearing from us. They will be hearing from us in big ways.”