Rewind to 2009. The fight over ObamaCare is raging, and a few news outlets report that something looks ethically rotten in the White House. An outside group funded by industry is paying the former firm of senior presidential adviser David Axelrod to run ads in favor of the bill. That firm, AKPD Message and Media, still owes Mr. Axelrod money and employs his son.
The story quickly died, but emails recently released by the House Energy and Commerce Committee ought to resurrect it. The emails suggest the White House was intimately involved both in creating this lobby and hiring Mr. Axelrod's firm—which is as big an ethical no-no as it gets.
Mr. Axelrod—who left the White House last year—started AKPD in 1985. The firm earned millions helping run Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Mr. Axelrod moved to the White House in 2009 and agreed to have AKPD buy him out for $2 million. But AKPD chose to pay Mr. Axelrod in annual installments—even as he worked in the West Wing. This agreement somehow passed muster with the Office of Government Ethics, though the situation at the very least should have walled off AKPD from working on White-House priorities.
It didn't. The White House and industry were working hand-in-glove to pass ObamaCare in 2009, and among the vehicles supplying ad support was an outfit named Healthy Economy Now (HEN). News stories at the time described this as a "coalition" that included the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), the American Medical Association, and labor groups—suggesting these entities had started and controlled it.
House emails show HEN was in fact born at an April 15, 2009 meeting arranged by then-White House aide Jim Messina and a chief of staff for Democratic Sen. Max Baucus. The two politicos met at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) and invited representatives of business and labor.
A Service Employees International Union attendee sent an email to colleagues noting she'd been invited by the Baucus staffer, explaining: "Also present was Jim Messina. . . . They basically want to see adds linking HC reform to the economy. . . . there were not a lot of details, but we were told that we wd be getting a phone call. well that call came today."
The call was from Nick Baldick, a Democratic consultant who had worked on the Obama campaign and for the DSCC. Mr. Baldick started HEN. The only job of PhRMA and others was to fund it.
Meanwhile, Mr. Axelrod's old firm was hired to run the ads promoting ObamaCare. At the time, a HEN spokesman said HEN had done the hiring. But the emails suggest otherwise. In email after email, the contributors to HEN refer to four men as the "White House" team running health care. They included John Del Cecato and Larry Grisolano (partners at AKPD), as well as Andy Grossman (who once ran the DSCC) and Erik Smith, who had been a paid adviser to the Obama presidential campaign.
In one email, PhRMA consultant Steve McMahon calls these four the "WH-designated folks." He explains to colleagues that Messrs. Grossman, Grisolano and Del Cecato "are very close to Axelrod," and that "they have been put in charge of the campaign to pass health reform." Ron Pollack, whose Families USA was part of the HEN coalition, explained to colleagues that "the team that is working with the White House on health-care reform. . . . [Grossman, Smith, Del Cecato, Grisolano] . . . would like to get together with us." This would provide "guidance from the White House about their messaging."
According to White House visitor logs, Mr. Smith had 28 appointments scheduled between May and August—17 made through Mr. Messina or his assistant. Mr. Grossman appears in the logs at least 19 times. Messrs. Del Cecato and Grisolano of AKPD also visited in the spring and summer, at least twice with Mr. Axelrod, who was deep in the health-care fight.
A 2009 PhRMA memo also makes clear that AKPD had been chosen before PhRMA joined HEN. It's also clear that some contributors didn't like the conflict of interest. When, in July 2009, a media outlet prepared to report AKPD's hiring, a PhRMA participant said: "This is a big problem." Mr. Baldick advises: "just say, AKPD is not working for PhRMA." AKPD and another firm, GMMB, would handle $12 million in ad business from HEN and work for a successor 501(c)4.
A basic rule of White House ethics is to avoid even the appearance of self-dealing or nepotism. If Mr. Axelrod or his West Wing chums pushed political business toward Mr. Axelrod's former firm, they contributed to his son's salary as well as to the ability of the firm to pay Mr. Axelrod what it still owed him. Could you imagine the press frenzy if Karl Rove had dome the same after he joined the White House?
Messrs. Axelrod and Messina are now in Chicago running Mr. Obama's campaign. Mr. Axelrod, the White House and a partner for AKPD didn't respond to requests for comment on their role in HEN, the tapping of Mr. Baldick, and the redolent hiring of AKPD. Until the White House explains all this, voters can fairly conclude that the President's political team took their Chicago brand of ethics into the White House.