WASHINGTON — Scores of former members of President Donald Trump's campaign and transition team, as well as others with ties to his young administration, are setting up shop as lobbyists in Washington and cashing in on their connections, according to a new study published Thursday.
The report, produced by Public Citizen, a public interest group, identified at least 44 registered federal lobbyists with such ties to Trump or Vice President Mike Pence operating in Washington as recently as the end of August. These collectively billed nearly $41.8 million to clients, records showed.
Those clients included the owner of a private equity group that received U.S. government approval to take over the for-profit University of Phoenix, and directors of Wells Fargo, which has faced increased government scrutiny after its workers created bogus accounts for unwitting customers.
Others include the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; the governments of Afghanistan, Kenya, Iraq, Guatemala and Malaysia, and Moise Katumbi, the opposition leader in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The report's findings demonstrate that despite Trump's campaign to "drain the swamp" of lobbyists and special interests, Washington's influence industry is alive and well — and growing.
"The message is pretty clear, this is who you need to look out to if you want to influence the Trump administration," said Public Citizen's Alan Zibel, a former AP journalist who co-authored the report.
The White House said in a statement to the AP that Trump's restrictions on lobbyists were "historically strong," and said it does not control the actions of private citizens who never had an official role in the administration.
Trump issued an executive order on ethics roughly one week into his presidency that built on President Barack Obama's 2009 order. Trump's order banned executive appointees from lobbying their agencies for five years after leaving office, though not from lobbying government as a whole. He also banned appointees from ever working as lobbyists for a foreign government.
Public Citizen identified 17 people who worked for Trump's transition team, then engaged in lobbying the administration during its first six months. They collectively billed clients $19.3 million.
The 44 lobbyists with ties to Trump or Pence represent those identified on federal lobbying disclosure paperwork. They do not include individuals like ex-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who co-founded a lobbying firm after not receiving a role in Trump's administration.
Brian Ballard, who worked on Trump's inaugural committee and was a Florida-based lobbyist for the Trump Organization, opened a Washington office less than two weeks after the inauguration, bringing on board Dan McFaul, who worked for Trump's transition team.
During Trump's first full month as president, Ballard Partners was hired by 14 customers, including Amazon.com, American Airlines, the for-profit prison company the GEO Group Inc., and U.S. Sugar Corp., according to lobbying records.
Ballard Partners reported receiving $250,000 from the GEO Group. One month after Trump's inauguration, Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended the Obama-era prohibition on allowing for-profit prisons to house federal inmates. In May, the Justice Department awarded the GEO Group two 10-year contracts valued at $664 million. In April, the group won a $110 million federal contract to build the first new immigrant detention center under the Trump administration.
Ballard said he doesn't comment on individual clients. The Justice Department said the change in policy restores the Federal Bureau of Prisons' flexibility to manage the inmate population.
Barry Bennett, a former senior adviser to Trump's campaign, founded Avenue Strategies with ex-Trump campaign manager Lewandowski. Although Lewandowski parted ways with the firm, saying his name was being used to promote connections to Trump, multiple Trump ties remain. Avenue Strategies has employed as many as five and now has three registered lobbyists with connections to Trump. They have billed more than $1 million to clients, including Citgo Petroleum, a U.S. affiliate of Venezuela's state oil company PDVSA and one of the biggest corporate donors to Trump's swearing-in ceremony.
Avenue Strategies has been helping Citgo fight possible sanctions against Venezuelan oil pushed by lawmakers critical of Venezuelan government leader Nicolas Maduro. Trump in August tightened sanctions on financial transactions with Venezuela but still allows oil transactions between the two countries.
"I clearly understand the optics," Bennett said. "But the truth is, Citgo is an American company with 6,000 employees in America, and they produce a pretty significant share of our nation's gasoline."