The curious case of an incurious press on Dan Coats

Democrats have attempted to create a narrative for Dan Coats’ return to electoral politics as an eeeeeeeevil lobbyist looking to pervert government by representing eeeeeeeeeevil corporations.  That argument may have less impact now that the Obama White House has its issues with a former Google lobbyist coordinating PR with his former employer, but that hasn’t stopped Indiana Democrats from running with the lobbyist meme.  It also hasn’t prompted the national media to do rudimentary checking before publishing accusations.  Consider this story from the Washington Post’s Dan Eggen from February, and the list of clients Eggen attributes to Coats:

The former senator has had scores of corporate lobbying clients over the years, including health-care firms (Amgen, United Health Group, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America), bailout recipients (Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch) and communications companies (BellSouth, Sprint Nextel, Verizon). Another past client is Cerberus Capital Management, where Dan Quayle — whose seat Coats took over in the Senate — is a top executive.

The problem appears to be that all of the clients of Verner Lipfert and King & Spalding got listed in Senate disclosure forms as clients of every individual lobbyist, which was a coding error by the Senate.  Coats didn’t lobby on behalf of Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, United Health Group, Verizon/Bell Atlantic, or BellSouth, among others.  That work, as explained by Coats in a statement released by his campaign, was performed by other lobbyists at the firms.  The PDF includes copies of the lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate.

Indiana’s Democratic Party website helped continue the inaccuracies:

His first job after leaving Congress was for the Washington, DC lobbying firm of Verner, Lipfert, Bernhard McPherson and Hand where his clients included Merill Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Freddie Mac. Later, he became Co-Chair of the lobbying division of King & Spalding where his clients included Bank of America, Cerberus Capital Management and Harvest Natural Resources, a Houston-based energy company partly owned by the socialist state of Venezuela.

Last weekend, the Indianapolis Star finally did the job that the Post should have done from the beginning, which was to get the actual clients Coats represented:

Five months after entering the race to win back his old seat in the U.S. Senate, Republican Dan Coats for the first time detailed his lobbying activities, insisting he did no work for any client that now is an embarrassment.

No work for Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. No lobbying for terrorist-haven Yemen. Nothing to help Wall Street bailout recipient Goldman Sachs. No work for BP, the oil company responsible for the disastrous oil spill in the gulf.

Instead, in an exclusive interview with The Indianapolis Star, Coats identified 36 clients he worked for at the two Washington lobbying firms that employed him after he left the Senate in 1998.

And what about Harvest Natural Resources, the firm “partly owned by the socialist state of Venezuela”?

The list includes Harvest Natural Resources, the Texas oil company Coats said was fighting a takeover by Chavez. …

In some cases, Coats said, his work involved directly calling members of Congress — including the calls he made to Sen. Richard Lugar and . Rep. Dan Burton asking them to meet with Harvest company officials as they tried to fend off Chavez’s demands. Those two calls, he said, are the total work he did on that case.

It doesn’t sound as if Coats was exactly getting into bed with Chavez, a distinction that doesn’t appear on the Democratic Party website nor in Eggen’s piece.  Also missing from Eggen’s article: any hint that he sought to ask Coats or his team about the lobbying clients that Eggen reported.  Eggen reported that Coats represented Bombardier, for instance, when Bombardier was actually represented by John Zentay, as the disclosure records show (page 16).

As far as the eeeeeeeeeevil lobbyist meme goes, it’s basically effluvium anyway, even if Coats’ Democratic opponent wasn’t getting into bed with lobbyists for his own run.  But since Democrats want to make it an issue, then perhaps they can explain why Brad Ellsworth has already taken over $25,000 from lobbyists in this cycle.  At the same time, Ellsworth and the Democrats may want to explain why two Jack Abramaoff lieutenants, Eddie Ayoob and Mike Smith, staged a fundraiser for Ellsworth back in March.

Object lesson: if the media wants to dig, then actually dig, instead of just taking the PR output of the campaigns as gospel.  There may be some issues with clients for which Coats will have to answer, but he’s not exactly hiding these connections, and no one seems to be asking Ellsworth many questions about his own associations.  It may take longer to get the full, nuanced truth, but that’s supposed to be their job.