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Crooked Ex-Congressman Now Hawking Smokes

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"It is not expertise that RJ Reynolds is buying," says one Washington insider. "The company is buying Steven Buyer's Rolodex."

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL

Steve Buyer, a former Indiana congressman who tirelessly advocated for the tobacco industry while in office, is now…working for the tobacco industry.

Don't remember Steve Buyer? He's the guy who made this specious argument on the House floor in 2009:

"You could have smoked that lettuce and you still end up with the same problems. You could cut the grass in your yard, dry it, and roll it up in a cigarette, and smoke it -- and you're still going to have a lot of problems. It is the smoke that kills, not the nicotine."



If, in fact, the smoke is what kills, the nicotine -- absent in grass, but very much present in tobacco -- is what keeps you hooked. Plus, it certainly is a lot easier to make such a statement when the tobacco industry has been one of your largest donors (just under $125,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics).

According to ProPublica's Justin Elliott, Buyer "revealed the new job for Reynolds American in little-noticed testimony Sept.19 before the Indiana General Assembly's Health Finance Commission." But a read of Buyer's remarks shows him to have a fairly remarkable justification for his new endeavor, saying, "To be an agent of change, you can do it from the outside and attack tobacco manufacturers like many anti-tobacco organizations do, or you can do it from the inside. I have chosen to be an agent of change from the inside." (One wonders how some of Buyer's other top political contributors, including Eli Lilly (NYSE:LLY), Merck (NYSE:MRK), GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), and the American Dental Association, might view this alliance.)

Craig Holman, Government Affairs Lobbyist at non-profit watchdog Public Citizen -- and an authority on lobbying and money in government -- says the "revolving door abuses of Rep. Steve Buyer...are not surprising."

"The revolving door provides wealthy special interests with a powerful means to shape public policy, and lawmakers with a lucrative opportunity for gaining riches -- a mutually beneficial relationship that is more common than most people fear," Holman tells me. "About 43% of retiring members of Congress have spun through the revolving door and become registered lobbyists."

There are "at least two grave problems posed by revolving door abuse," Holman says. "First, it raises serious questions about whether a lawmaker has taken official actions in the public interest or for the lawmaker's own prospects of lucrative future employment with the company that benefited from those actions. In Buyer's case, there is a very close relationship between campaign contribution and donations to Buyer's charity from RJ Reynolds, official actions from Buyer that would directly benefit RJ Reynolds, and now employment with RJ Reynolds (which is likely to bring in an annual salary for Buyer between $1 million and $3 million)."

The other problem Holman points to is one of equal access.

"At the asking price for lawmakers-turned-lobbyists of $1 million to $3 million a year, only the wealthiest special interests can afford buying these types of inside connections to Congress," he says. "It is not expertise that RJ Reynolds is buying -- any lawmaker that compares smoking cigarettes with smoking lettuce has shown very little expertise -- the company is buying Steven Buyer's Rolodex."

Steve Buyer Began His Post-Legislative Career With a Lie

In January 2010, Buyer announced that he would not seek reelection "at the conclusion of this term due to the recent diagnosis of Joni."

He explained that Joni, his wife, had been "diagnosed with what doctors call an incurable autoimmune disease." ("I will not call it incurable because it's our faith that allows us to believe that all diseases will be cured," Buyer added.)

The announcement came after an investigation by the Indianapolis Star found that "almost all" the contributions made to the Frontier Foundation, the Buyer-led charity referred to by Craig Holman, came from "20 companies and trade organizations that have interests before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on which Buyer serves." (Case in point: Frontier took $200,000 from PhRMA, a group that represents the pharmaceutical industry and frequently appeared before the House Energy Subcommittee on Health, of which Buyer was a member. To make matters worse, PhRMA also hired Buyer's son Ryan as its "federal affairs manager.")

The backlash was immediate.

From Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington:

Although Rep. Buyer tied his retirement to his wife's serious illness, earlier this week Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed complaints with the Office of Congressional Ethics and the Internal Revenue Service over Rep. Buyer's misuse of the Frontier Foundation, which was founded by the congressman. Although Frontier allegedly was formed to provide scholarships to needy Indiana students, the foundation has never awarded so much as a single scholarship. Instead, Frontier has used its money to pay for fundraisers at posh golf resorts, allowing those with business interests before the congressman -- and who contribute handsomely to his campaign committee and leadership PAC -- to hobnob with him.

"CREW is sorry to learn of Mrs. Buyer's illness and hopes for her full recovery," Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director and a former federal prosecutor, said. "The timing of Rep. Buyer's announcement, however, and the fact that he will remain in Congress for another year, suggests his retirement may well be tied to the OCE and IRS complaints against him and his foundation."

However much Joni Buyer's illness contributed to her husband's resignation is unclear. What is perfectly unambiguous is that Buyer got off to a roaring start in the private sector after his term expired, immediately flouting the one-year "cooling-off" period that prohibits former members of Congress from lobbying the legislative branch after leaving office, and began lobbying for health care technology company McKesson (NYSE:MCK) -- a firm whose representative appeared before Buyer's House committee in 2008 to express support for HR 5839, a bill introduced by none other than Steve Buyer. (In a statement to The Hill at the time, Buyer brushed off any concerns, saying, "The Steve Buyer Group LLC understands its obligations and restrictions pursuant to the law and also supports full disclosure.")

Business as Usual

Egregious as Steve Buyer's behavior may appear, Public Citizen's Holman points to former Representative Bill Tauzin of Louisiana (a Democrat from 1972 to 1995, then a Republican from 1995 through 2005) as "the most classic example of revolving door abuse."

"In fact, during the HLOGA (Honest Leadership and Government Act of 2007) debate over restricting the revolving door, I dubbed the issue the 'Billy Tauzin problem,'" Holman tells me. "Tauzin was the lead House negotiator of the 2003 Bush prescription drug bill, which gave the prescription drug industry everything it wanted: No price controls, a ban on importing cheaper drugs from Canada and elsewhere, a prohibition against Medicare using its buying power to encourage lower prices on bulk purchases of drugs."

Two months after the bill was passed, Holman says Tauzin announced he was "leaving Congress to become the head lobbyist for PhRMA, at about a $2 million a year salary."

Of course, the revolving door spins the other way, too. As the presidential race comes to a head, the Wall Street Journal cites sources who say that Mitt Romney's shortlist for Treasury secretary, if elected, includes none other than former Merrill Lynch (NYSE:BAC) CEO John Thain.

Though he may not have the same blatant conflicts of interest as Steve Buyer, Thain certainly knows how to waste money like a dyed-in-the-wool political appointee, spending over a million dollars on office furniture as Merrill lost $52 million per day during the height of the financial crisis.

Anyone else feel like they need a cigarette?

Follow Justin Rohrlich on Twitter: @chickenalaking

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No positions in stocks mentioned.
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