Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Close friend of agriculture chief now a Monsanto lobbyist

By: Timothy P. Carney
Examiner Columnist
December 2, 2009

Jerry Crawford, an Iowa lawyer and lobbyist with deep ties to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, recently registered as the Washington representative for Monsanto, a biotechnology and agrichemical giant that embodies the "special interests" President Obama planned to drive from the temple of federal government.

The Des Moines Register calls Crawford a "well-connected, high-profile Des Moines lawyer" and "Democratic power broker."

Examine his record, and you see what the paper means. Crawford was once chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party. He was the Iowa chairman for the presidential campaigns of Michael Dukakis, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2008, he was Hillary Clinton's Midwest campaign chairman.

Of greater significance today, he is also a "longtime Vilsack friend and adviser," a "Vilsack ally," a "top Vilsack insider," and "a guru for and a big friend of Gov. Tom Vilsack," according to the Register.

In 1998, Crawford got in near the ground floor of Vilsack's rise in politics, putting his reputation and wealth behind the long shot gubernatorial candidate. Crawford hosted at least one fundraiser for Vilsack that year, which netted $23,000.

Questions arose early in Vilsack's tenure about conflicts regarding Crawford's work as a lobbyist and his closeness to Vilsack. A 1999 Register article reported that Vilsack, before firing members of the gambling commission disliked by the casinos, had raised $17,000 from gambling interests. "Most of the $17,000 Vilsack received came from Jerry Crawford, a lawyer for the Iowa Greyhound Association," the article reported.

At play here is not likely a quid pro quo or bribery, but just a close friendship: Crawford donates to his friend's campaign, and Vilsack takes his friend's calls on state issues. But this chumminess is exactly how special interest politics works. And the chumminess runs deep.

In 2001, as Vilsack ran for re-election, Crawford was Vilsack's top individual donor, giving him $31,000. When Vilsack traveled the Midwest stumping for Kerry in 2004, Crawford was one of Gov. Vilsack's two travel mates, according to CNN.

So, Sen. Kerry, Secretary of State Clinton and Secretary Vilsack are all tight with Crawford. And Vilsack and Hillary Clinton, Crawford told me, are "good friends, and have been for a long, long time."

Although Obama was Crawford's third choice in 2008 (after Vilsack and then Clinton), Crawford still ponied up a $10,000 check for the Obama Victory Fund last August. This contribution didn't violate Obama's no-lobbyist-cash pledge because Crawford was lobbying only state government (with Monsanto as a client), not the federal government.

But now Crawford has registered to represent Monsanto in Washington on "Competition/antitrust issues within the agricultural industry; environmental laws, regulations and policies related to the agricultural industry," according to a Nov. 10 filing. Monsanto is a multinational corporation most famous for its genetically modified seeds and for its herbicide Roundup. The company is also a leading member of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which in 2001 named Vilsack governor of the year.

This situation -- the agriculture secretary's top fundraiser, top donor and longtime confidant serving as a Monsanto lobbyist -- would seem to create an awkward situation for the Obama administration given the president's pledges to crush lobbyist influence. Crawford tells me he hasn't met with anyone yet on Monsanto's behalf. I called and e-mailed Vilsack's office Monday asking if he would meet with Crawford in the future if Crawford requested a meeting. By Tuesday evening, Vilsack's office hadn't responded.

Monsanto's lobbying army already has made an incursion into the Obama administration. The top food safety adviser at the Department of Health and Human Services is Michael Taylor, Monsanto's former vice president for government affairs. As I reported in my column on Friday, Obama has nominated Isi Siddiqui to be his agriculture trade representative; Siddiqui is the vice president for regulatory affairs and a former lobbyist at CropLife America, which is a pro-pesticide lobbying coalition of which Monsanto is a prominent member.

Monsanto, lying at the intersection of agriculture and biotechnology, is deeply dependent on government favor. The company stands to benefit from the House's global warming bill, which subsidizes biofuels and gives carbon credits to farmers who control weeds with herbicides rather than tilling the ground. Also, the company constantly fights to ward off new regulations on pesticides and genetically modified food.

Monsanto is a poster boy for special interests and is a favorite target of the environmental Left. With Secretary Vilsack's fundraiser, donor and confidant carrying its flag, Monsanto figures to have even more clout in Washington.

Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.

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