Unions hire Dem lobbyists to look into smear-campaign allegations

High-profile Democratic lobbyists have been investigating allegations that unions and liberal groups were under threat of a smear campaign paid for by one of Washington’s most powerful business associations.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and Change to Win, a union coalition, have hired The Raben Group to look into allegations that security contractors seeking work from a law firm representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce planned to discredit the business group’s liberal critics.

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The Democratic-leaning lobby firm was hired by the SEIU and Change to Win — a coalition of which SEIU is a member — on April 4, according to lobbying disclosure records released last week. 

Private emails from one of the security contractors involved in the alleged smear campaign appeared online this year. The emails described plans to use forged documents, as well as research on personal information, to smear the Chamber’s political opponents. 

In a statement to The Hill, the SEIU called the allegations “disturbing information” and said it wanted lobbyists to contact lawmakers about the misuse of counterterrorism tools meant for federal authorities.

“Earlier this year, SEIU became aware of information that it may have been the target, along with other progressive organizations, of a campaign to infiltrate and discredit our work by a group of cyber-security contractors that proposed using potentially illegal Internet-based tactics to accomplish that goal,” the SEIU said in its statement. “On behalf of SEIU and Change to Win, the Raben Group contacted lawmakers about whether the government should look into this disturbing information involving potential misuse of cyber-counterterrorism tools developed for government purposes.”

A Chamber spokesman said the business group was not surprised by news that a lobby firm was hired by the labor groups to look into the allegations. 

“This is no surprise, since SEIU and Change to Win have been leading an orchestrated campaign among their anti-business allies targeting the U.S. Chamber for a number of years,” said Chamber spokesman J.P. Fielder.

The Chamber denies ever hiring the security contractors to discredit liberal critics.

“As we’ve said before, no money, for any purpose, was paid to any of those three private security firms by the Chamber, or by anyone on behalf of the Chamber. It’s important to note that the proposal you asked about was not requested by the Chamber, it was not delivered to the Chamber, and it was never discussed with anyone at the Chamber,” Fielder said.

Robert Raben, a former aide to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Clinton administration Justice Department official who is the president and founder of The Raben Group, is lobbying for SEIU and Change to Win. Joe Onek, once senior counsel to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), is also working on the account for the firm.

The two have contacted lawmakers in the House and Senate as well as officials in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence regarding the “investigation of privacy violations,” according to quarterly lobbying reports filed by the firm. The firm has been paid less than $5,000 by either SEIU or Change to Win.

The Raben Group and Change to Win deferred questions about the lobbying records to the SEIU.

The allegations of a smear campaign surfaced in February, when a hacker group posted private emails from a security contractor online. The emails contained a proposal made to Hunton & Williams, a law firm that represents the Chamber, detailing a plan by three security contractors — HBGary Federal, Palantir Technologies and Berico Technologies — to discredit a number of the business group’s liberal opponents.

Under the moniker of Team Themis, the proposal offered the firms’ services to help combat the “messaging propaganda” of U.S. Chamber Watch, a group that is critical of the Chamber and founded by Change to Win, according to a document posted online by the hackers. It detailed a plan to undermine the group’s credibility with the press.

“Create a false document, perhaps highlighting periodical financial information, and monitor to see if U.S. Chamber Watch acquires it. Afterward, present explicit evidence proving that such transactions never occurred,” said the document.

Congress has weighed in on the controversy regarding plans for the alleged smear campaign.

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In March, 20 House Democrats wrote a letter to the Republican chairmen of the House Oversight and Government Reform, Judiciary, Intelligence and Defense committees, asking for an investigation into the matter. That was followed by letters from Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) to the Defense Department, the Justice Department and the Director of National Intelligence, asking them to turn over to Congress all contracts the three security firms have with the departments.

One of the Chamber opponents allegedly targeted by the Themis proposal said the effort should raise questions about privacy and security.

“It's not just critics of the U.S. Chamber who should be concerned about this potentially criminal attack plan. Taxpayers, law enforcement agencies and anyone who cares about personal security should be alarmed when defense contractors — working on behalf of the country's largest lobbying organization and one of its top law firms — attempt to use the same tactics against private citizens developed for use against terrorists,” said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for U.S. Chamber Watch, in a statement.