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Wed 27 May 2020
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Stephen Delahunty reports on how the US Government’s $669 billion Paycheck Protection Programme to deal with COVID-19 is benefitting those with links to the President.

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While most of the world has been left aghast at US President Donald Trump’s pronouncements during the Coronavirus pandemic, businesses and lobby firms with ties to the President have been ensuring that they secure millions in aid from the second largest stimulus bill in US history.

As the President’s prescriptions for the virus have become increasingly toxic, lobbying spending spiked to near-record levels in the first quarter of this year as corporations, trade groups and other clients rushed to influence his Government’s response to COVID-19, particularly its $2.2 trillion stimulus bill.

Federal lobbying spending totalled $903 million in the first quarter of 2020, according to to Washington-based non-profit, OpenSecrets. It found that efforts have focused on the CARES Act, a bi-partisan stimulus bill that established a $500 billion fund for struggling companies and distributed $350 billion in loans to small businesses.

At least 3,200 clients reported lobbying on issues related to the Coronavirus and the stimulus bill. More than 1,500 lobbying clients specifically reported attempting to influence the House of Representatives’ version of the CARES Act. Among all non-appropriations bills introduced since 2005, only the 2009 stimulus package drew more lobbying clients.


Trump-Tied Companies

Public companies run by big Trump donors or those that hired lobbyists with connections to the White House have been receiving small business loans under the $669 billion Paycheck Protection Programme (PPP), which was authorised by the US Federal Government to help protect the economy during the Coronavirus outbreak.

Hotel chain, the Ashford Hospitality Trust, has received $96.1 million in loans – the highest amount received by any company under the programme. The hotels are run by Trump donor Monty Bennett, who gave $548,000 to Republican candidates and groups in this election cycle. The company’s loans were secured after it hired lobbyist Jeffrey Miller, who has raised more than $1 million for Trump’s 2020 re-election bid.

Phunware, a digital company specialising in mass data collection of smartphone locations, is currently working on Trump’s re-election campaign and has received more than $2.8 million in loans through the Small Business Administration. 

According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, low-emission technology producers Capstone Turbine Corp, received $2.6 million in loans. The company’s board of directors includes Robert Powelson, who Trump appointed to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in 2017. He later resigned in 2018 to become president of the National Association of Water Companies. 

Chicago-based construction supply company, Continental Materials, was allocated $5.5 million in loans. CEO James Gidwitz donated to Trump’s campaign in 2016 and his brother, also a Trump donor, was appointed by the President to serve as the US Ambassador to Belgium.

In addition, a hotel company owned by Gordon Sondland and his family was also granted PPP relief. He served as US Ambassador to the EU but was fired from the administration in February after testifying as a key witness in Trump’s impeachment hearings. He donated $1 million for Trump’s 2016 inauguration.

The roll-out of PPP has come into question for shutting out small businesses and allowing large corporations with franchises to access the funds. As companies have scrambled to hire lobbyists, those firms with connections to Trump have been feeling the benefit.


Florida Lobbyist with Links to Trump and GOP Allies Flourishes

Ballard Partners received more than $5.2 million from January through to March, earning the seventh-highest revenue of all lobbying firms. The company is run by Brian Ballard who, during the 2016 US Presidential Election campaign, was the chairman of Trump Victory – a pro-Trump joint-fundraising committee. Later, Ballard was appointed vice-chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee and a member of the presidential transition finance committee.

The Republican National Committee (RNC) named Ballard a financial vice-chair in 2017 to help raise money for the 2020 election cycle. He also made contributions worth $835,000 for Trump’s joint fundraising committee. In the current election cycle, Ballard and his family members have contributed $124,000 to the RNC. 

Businesses from a range of industries have sought the firm’s advocacy, with many only receiving relief after Ballard Partners lobbied on their behalf. For example, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) changed the word “employees” to “workers” in its updated guidance in March – considered a big win for gig workers, including Getaround and Uber drivers, who were initially not eligible for unemployment benefits.

Staff at the firm have previously denied that they leverage or use its connection to Trump and other Government officials. However, seven of the eight lobbyists in the firm have enjoyed Government positions. Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi rejoined Ballard Partners last month after defending Trump during the impeachment trial. Previously, Bondi was a member of Trump’s presidential transition team.   

Daniel Auble, a senior research at OpenSecrets, said that the rise of Ballard’s firm was interesting because it demonstrated how someone with connections or insights into the White House can become one of the biggest players in the industry. But, he was also keen to stress that not all of this activity raises questions.

“Trump is unique because of his background in business as opposed to politics or public service,” he said. “This has presented problems that in modern times have not been tackled before. But the revolving door of politicians and business associates going on to become lobbyists, has been increasing for a generation.

“However, many businesses are fighting for their survival, but the industries with resources and connections are obviously getting a leg-up, so its important that we follow up and hold lobbyists to account, as well as the Government for their spending.”


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