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How GOP Senate Candidate Tommy Thompson Cashed in Big on His Lobbyist Connections

Progressive Tammy Baldwin's challenger owes part of his sudden multi-million wealth to his time with the Washington lobbying firm, Akin Gump.

Former Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, embroiled in a tight Wisconsin senate race against Democratic congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, has been the target of many news stories examining the remarkable business career he launched since he left the Bush administration seven years ago.

As disturbing as this pattern already is, an AlterNet focus on a single portal to Thompson’s  sudden multi-million wealth--his health care unit clients at the legendary Washington lobbying firm, Akin Gump--reveals Thompson’s breathtaking appetite for capitalizing on public service, only parts of which have been previously reported. A four-term Wisconsin governor, Thompson’s decision to seek a senate seat at 70, after years of prospecting for gold in Washington, suggests a brazen belief that the incestuous lobbying intertwines he embodies are so old-hat voters have become inured to them.

This story examines seven Akin clients aided by HHS decisions in the Thompson era who subsequently hired him as a consultant and/or his longtime counsel Lawrence A. “Ladd” Wiley. Wiley left HHS with Thompson to join Akin in 2005 and, unlike Thompson, files as a registered lobbyist. Thompson says he doesn’t lobby, but only provides strategic advice to his clients. Wiley is still an Akin partner, while Thompson, who was paid $771,000 by Akin in 2011, left the firm to run for the senate.

Some of these Akin clients have been tainted by scandal, including a criminal guilty plea and a deferred prosecution agreement. Virtually all have donated to his senate or presidential campaigns, totaling at least $124,458, including contributions from Akin partners of $31,308. Thompson has received millions in direct payments or stock options from these clients, some of which have conceded they hired him because of his “connections,” even while Thompson says he doesn’t lobby.

The Food and Drug Administration, a pivotal agency under HHS, took actions that benefited several these clients during and after the Thompson era. Thompson tried to appoint a veterinarian, Dr. Lester Crawford, to head the FDA in 2001, but the White House blocked the appointment, so Crawford served as either acting commissioner or deputy commissioner throughout Thompson’s term. When Thompson left in 2005, Crawford was formally nominated FDA commissioner, but resigned that September in the midst of a grand jury investigation.  He pled guilty in 2006 to concealing his interests in companies the FDA regulated. Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, who’s given $2500 to Thompson’s senate campaign and presented a special citation to Thompson just before leaving at the end of the Bush administration, succeeded Crawford.

Thompson and Wiley created an organization in 2006 called the Alliance for a Stronger FDA that includes 180 organizations associated with the agency and lobbies for greater funding. Wiley is its executive director, Thompson once its chair, with Crawford and von Eschenbach honorary chairs. Akin is the Alliance’s lobbyist and was paid $240,000 this year. The FDA, which increasingly survives on user fees, depends heavily on the Alliance for funding support.

Thompson also appointed another close confidant from Wisconsin, Stewart Simonson, Assistant Secretary of Public Health Emergency Preparedness in April 2004, and Simonson, who remained at HHS until mid 2006, also made decisions that benefited Thompson’s Akin clients. Like Wiley, Simonson had worked in Thompson’s counsel office when he was governor and at HHS. When Thompson was chair of Amtrak in the late 90s, Simonson became corporate secretary and counsel. Simonson helped steer Project Bioshield, a $5.6 billion plan for biological warfare countermeasures, through congress in 2004, assuring skeptics that it would not be used “as a cash cow” for politically-wired companies. Put in charge of running the program by Thompson despite an absence of background in the field, he became the butt of even Republican criticism, with  Congressman Tom Davis noting that he “just appears to be over his head.”

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