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

January 29, 2010 - 7:58 PM
Federal prosecutors are reviewing a request for an investigation into whether Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act for his frequent visits to the White House and with members of Congress in 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 request for an investigation into whether Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act for his frequent visits to the White House and with members of Congress in 2009.
 
Americans for Tax Reform (ATR) and its subgroup the Alliance for Worker Freedom (AWF) sent letters to acting U.S. Attorney Channing D. Phillips of the District of Columbia asking for a probe.
 
“Specifically, it is important to determine whether those and related activities could constitute ‘lobbying’ by Mr. Stern in violation of the Lobbying Disclosure Act,” said the Nov. 13, 2009, letter signed by ATR President Grover G. Norquist and AWF Executive Director Brian M. Johnson.
 
In a subsequent letter, the two groups asked for a probe into SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger. 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.

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 last week. “We have been informed by the Senate that the complaining parties were notified.”
 
The key question is whether Stern or Burger, no longer registered lobbyists, spent 20 percent of the work time in a quarterly period lobbying lawmakers and whether they failed to report it.


CNSNews.com followed up this week to ask if each visit to the White House or other lawmakers by SEIU officials Stern and Burger involved seeking a government action. SEIU spokeswoman Kawana Lloyd told CNSNews.com on Jan. 25, that the SEIU had likely said all it would say on the matter. Lloyd could not be reached for comment.

On Jan. 5, Stern responded to a question from CNN about the complaints from the 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.”


Stern 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, visitor logs show that Stern visited the White House 28 times in 2009. 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 secretary of the Senate’s office, on Dec. 29, informed Norquist and 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.”
 
CNSNews.com also contacted White House spokesmen several times via phone and e-mail to ask if each of the visits from Stern and Burger pertained to advocating for a specific government action. A White House spokesperson could not be reached for comment.

Johnson said neither the U.S. Attorney’s office nor the Clerk of the House, which also received the same letters, had responded. The SEIU had 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 left-wing 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,” he said.

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 “(a)ny 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” reads the letter. “Reports must be filed electronically with the Clerk of the House and Secretary of the Senate.”

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 Feb. 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.”