Thompson's past as lobbyist may play into future as candidate
Past as lobbyist may play into future as candidate
Times, rules have changed since Fred Thompson last ran
By Ken Dilanian
WASHINGTON When Fred Thompson was investigating
alleged campaign-finance abuses as chairman of the
Senate Governmental Affairs committee in 1997, one of
his targets was Harold Ickes a top aide and
fundraiser for President Clinton.
Over the past three years, though, the former
Republican senator and the Democratic powerbroker were
on the same side of a big legislative battle. Both
were part of a team of lobbyists for Equitas Ltd., a
British reinsurance company set up to handle billions
of dollars in claims by asbestos victims, lobbying
That unlikely pairing offers an insight into Thompson,
64, who declared his interest last week in running for
president. Although the folksy-sounding Tennessean
recently told USA TODAY that he would run an outsider,
just as he did while campaigning as a "country lawyer"
in a red pickup during his 1994 U.S. Senate race, his
résumé is that of a longtime Washington operative who
has crossed ideological lines to represent corporate
and foreign clients.
Before he was elected to the Senate, Thompson spent
nearly two decades in Washington as a lawyer-lobbyist,
representing such entities as Westinghouse, the
deposed leader of Haiti, the Teamsters Union pension
fund and the Tennessee Savings and Loan Association,
according to Senate records and published accounts.
After he left the Senate in 2003, Thompson resumed his
acting career with a role as the district attorney on
TV's Law & Order. Less visibly, he registered in 2004
as a lobbyist for Equitas, a company created to manage
the asbestos liability for Lloyd's of London.
Equitas hired a bevy of lobbyists to protect its
interests in the proposal to set up a federal trust
fund, paid for by insurers, asbestos-makers and
others, to compensate asbestos victims. The bill
failed to pass, but before that happened, Equitas got
what it wanted: a change in a provision the company
said singled out foreign insurers for unfavorable
treatment. Jon Nash, a firm spokesman, on Wednesday
credited Thompson as having "contributed to the
The company paid Thompson $760,000 from 2004 to 2006,
according to Senate records.
After a review of lobbying records and Thompson's tax
returns, The (Memphis) Commercial Appeal reported in
1994 that he earned $507,000 from lobbying in 1975-93.
That figure, a fraction of his total legal income,
reflects a narrower definition of lobbying than the
one in the current law. Thompson reported $3.7 million
in income from lawyering and acting from 1983 to 1993,
according to The Commercial Appeal and other Tennessee
newspapers that cited his tax returns.
Thompson declined to be interviewed for this article.
His spokesman, Mark Corallo, said, "Many of the
candidates from both parties have been lobbyists or
have been lobbied at one point or another in their
careers. It is an honorable endeavor that goes back to
the beginnings of this republic." Former New York City
mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican, reported that he
earned $1.2 million last year from Bracewell &
Giuliani, a Houston law and lobbying firm.
Thompson's opponent in his 1994 Senate race, Democrat
Jim Cooper, sought to make an issue of the advocacy.
He labeled Thompson a "Gucci-wearing, Lincoln-driving,
Perrier-drinking, Grey Poupon- spreading millionaire
Washington special-interest lobbyist." It didn't work.
Speaking of Congress, Thompson told one crowd he could
not wait "to go up there and grab that place by the
scruff of the neck and give it a good shake." He beat
Cooper by 20 percentage points.
Some analysts say Thompson may find his lobbying role
more of a burden under the microscope of a
presidential campaign, in an era when the Jack
Abramoff scandal has cast lobbying in a harsh light.
"I suspect that when you run for president those sorts
of activities receive a greater level of scrutiny,"
said Bruce Oppenheimer, political science professor at
Vanderbuilt University in Nashville. "It's not just,
'who are you?' but 'who are your friends?' "
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg said it could be a
plus that Thompson "can wear the plaid shirt and drive
the pickup and sound like a good ol' boy, and 20
minutes later, in a beautiful suit with polished
shoes, sound like a guy who is an insider who knows
about policy. But there is always the potential that
voters will see that contradiction and wonder which
one is the real one."
On occasion, Thompson lobbied for causes he would
later criticize as a senator. For example, Thompson
led a Senate effort against "corporate welfare." As a
lobbyist in the 1980s, he represented Westinghouse in
its failed bid to win billions in subsidies for a
nuclear reactor project in Tennessee, which the
Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, called
"a multibillion-dollar folly." Corallo said the
project was "aimed at helping to alleviate the energy
crunch the country was suffering through."
In addition to lobbying, Thompson also has served on
corporate boards. From May 2004 to November 2005, he
sat on the board of the NASDAQ stock market, according
to Securities and Exchange Commission records.
In the 1990s, Thompson served on the board of
directors of and did legal work for engineering
firm Stone & Webster. Shareholder activists
unsuccessfully sued the firm in 1994, though, saying
it was mismanaged. The lawsuit was filed after
Thompson left the board, but it covered activities
during the time he served. One plaintiff, investor
Nell Minow who made a business of buying shares in
underperforming companies and pushing for changes
accused Thompson of a conflict of interest because he
did legal work while on the board.
The company lost money throughout the 1990s, including
the time Thompson served on the board, and went
bankrupt in 2000, six years after Thompson left.
Corallo declined to comment.
Martin Baach, a lawyer who coordinated Equitas'
Capitol Hill advocacy, offered a different opinion of
Thompson's business skills. "He's a great problem
solver," Baach said.