A project examining White House visitor logs shows the Obama administration has extended an open door to Google.
Johanna Shelton, Google’s director of public policy — in effect, the company’s top lobbyist — has visited White House officials 128 times since President Barack Obama took office in 2009.
To put that in perspective, senior lobbyists for other companies in the telecommunications and cable industry — including Comcast, Facebook, Amazon, Oracle and Verizon — have visited the White House a combined 124 times in the same span. (That data goes through October 2015.)
The Google Transparency Project, the work of Campaign for Accountability, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to expose corporate influence on government, identified policy pushers for the 50 biggest lobbying spenders and counted how many times they appeared in the White House visitor logs.
Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, spent $16.6 million on lobbying in 2015. That was the twelfth most of any company, and the most by a technology firm, just above AT&T’s $16.4 million and Comcast’s $15.7 million.
Anne Weismann, executive director of the Campaign for Accountability, told Watchdog.org those logs don’t reveal the discussion of the meetings, just who attended them.
“You don’t know what the meetings are about, but the fact that someone has that level of access at the White House is revealing,” she said. “It certainly suggests a level of influence.”
Shelton far outpaced her peers. The second most frequent White House visitor, with 75 visits, was Alissa Fox, senior vice president of the Office of Policy and Representation for Blue Cross/Blue Shield (again, essentially a mouthful of a title for head lobbyist.)
Oil companies in the top 50 visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a combined 101 times, and defense contractors in the top 50 came 89 times since 2009. Shelton visited the White House more than 18 of the top 50 lobbying spenders combined.
Shelton didn’t return a call from Watchdog.org seeking comment about the White House visits. Google media relations didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.
“It suggests, given the intrusion of the Obama administration into the internet and health care, the idea these companies are independent of the government is quaint,” said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative foundation promoting transparency and accountability in government.
Fitton said the Obama administration wants to regulate the internet like a public utility, so he can’t blame Google for beating a trail to the White House.
“The government wants to turn these companies into socialized entities,” he said. “I’m surprised Google isn’t there twice as much.”
“With Obama’s destruction of the health care industry, evidently Blue Cross didn’t go there enough,” Fitton joked.
He pointed out, however, that because the White House isn’t subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the public can’t be sure the logs reflect all the visits that are made.
Google’s open door
In all, employees of Google and related companies visited the White House 427 times, or more than once a week over a period of nearly seven years. Those trips included 363 meetings in total, attended by 169 Google employees — from executives to software engineers — and 182 officials from the White House.
Weismann said the transparency project hasn’t crunched the numbers for total visits by other companies among the top 50 lobbying spenders.
The Google Transparency Project examination includes large events such as parties, state dinners and industry conferences. The majority of these meetings were likely between small groups of company officials and key White House officials, “meetings at which public policies are likely to have been discussed,” the Campaign for Accountability wrote.
At least 21 of those meetings included Obama, and a similar number included such high-ranking political and economic advisers as current White House chief of staff Denis McDonough, former chiefs of staff Jack Lew (now Treasury secretary), Bill Daley, Pete Rouse and Rahm Emanuel, senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and economic adviser Jeffrey Zients.
Of Shelton’s 128 visits, 94 included meetings with White House officials (she has also, for example, ferried Google Science Fair winners there), and four of those meetings involved Obama.
“That’s a lot of meetings for one individual to have,” Weismann said.
White House logs are not available for previous administrations; Obama was the first president to make that information available for public inspection.
A document showed that the George W. Bush administration’s Energy Task Force met with energy industry officials at least 40 times in 2001 in preparation for creating a new national energy policy, reported the Washington Post in 2007.
The administration went to court to try to keep the task force records private.
A little help from their friends?
Before working at Google, Shelton was senior counsel for telecommunications and internet issues for the House Energy and Commerce Committee and served as counsel on similar issues for Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Virginia. She also held multiple senior positions at the Federal Communications Commission.
Shelton has most commonly met with David Edelman, senior adviser for technology and economic policy, (13 meetings) and Victoria Espinel, intellectual property enforcement coordinator (12 meetings.) Shelton has met with 48 White House officials in all.
Of particular note for government watchdogs are the flurry of meetings by Shelton and other important Google representatives around the time the Federal Trade Commission was considering an antitrust case against the company in 2011. The FTC looked into whether Google’s business practices in searches and advertising was shutting out competitors and harming consumers. Namely, regulators investigated to see if Google favored its own companies in search results.
Google Transparency Project lists a number of meetings that took place in 2011 and 2012 during that investigation. Of particular note is this one: Shelton, Google director of product management Hunter Walk and Raben Group lobbyist Courtney Snowden met with White House domestic policy counsel Steve Robinson on April 17, 2012. Raben Group was one of the lobbying firms Google retained to help with the FTC antitrust case.
In January 2013, Google reached a settlement with the FTC, agreeing to allow competitor access to patents “on critical standardized technologies needed to make popular devices such as smart phones, laptop and tablet computers, and gaming consoles,” the FTC said in a press release.
The FTC did not, however, find that Google gamed the search-engine system.
“The evidence the FTC uncovered through this intensive investigation prompted us to require significant changes in Google’s business practices. However, regarding the specific allegations that the company biased its search results to hurt competition, the evidence collected to date did not justify legal action by the Commission,” said Beth Wilkinson, outside counsel to the FTC. “Undoubtedly, Google took aggressive actions to gain advantage over rival search providers. However, the FTC’s mission is to protect competition, and not individual competitors. The evidence did not demonstrate that Google’s actions in this area stifled competition in violation of U.S. law.”
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