Fred Thompson, foreign agent

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A while back, Karen Tumulty linked on Swampland to a Washington Post article about John Edwards’ ties to hedge fund operator Fortress Investment Group and asked me to comment on whether we should care. I said we should, although I couldn’t really tell how much, and both Karen and I got some grief from commenters for purportedly flogging the standard MSM line that Edwards is some kind of hypocrite (he’s rich! yet he says he wants to help the poor!) and for paying attention to personal and financial matters when we should be writing about health-care policy.

But being on a particular company’s payroll can have seriously affect your attitudes toward particular government policies. So here’s some interesting information about how Fred Thompson made $760,000 between acting gigs over the past three years, from Jeff Birnbaum’s column in today’s Post:

According to people he lobbied with, Thompson was an access man. He contacted his old colleagues to learn the latest about bills his client cared about. Thompson was frequently responsible for finding out what [then Senate Majority Leader Bill] Frist was planning for asbestos legislation, his spokesman said — an easy task, given his eight years in the Senate representing Tennessee alongside Frist (both were first elected in 1994).

Thompson’s client, London-based Equitas Ltd., held billions of dollars to pay off claims from people sickened by asbestos, a once-common building material. It wanted Congress to limit how much it had to pay into a trust fund to cover those liabilities.

In an earlier era, the term of art for what Thompson did would have been “foreign agent.” But a law change in 1995 allowed lobbyists for foreign companies to register simply as run-of-the-mill lobbyists, which permitted them to sidestep detailed disclosure requirements about their activities and to avoid the politically charged “agent” designation.

I tend to think the foreign-agent thing is a red herring. A little background on Equitas, from the FT:

[Equitas was] set up in 1996 to save the Lloyd’s insurance market from meltdown. Lloyd’s nearly collapsed under claims from the US on policies written before 1993 stemming mainly from asbestos and other pollution-related illnesses. It established Equitas to reinsure these liabilities and give Lloyd’s a new start.

There were a lot of Lloyd’s investors (“names”) in the U.S., too. Equitas is simply a global company, and I don’t see how taking money from it is any worse (or better) than taking it from Goldman Sachs or State Farm or Fortress Investments. But I do think the wealth of financial firms, and the willingness of many of them to bestow at least some of it on politicians, is something the rest of us ought to be paying attention to.

In the interest of full transparency, I should note that one of the main guys at Fortress is a college classmate of mine, and paid for the musical entertainment (Dave Wakeling one night, Blues Traveler the next) at our recent 20th reunion. I was there with a seven-year-old and didn’t stick around for these late-night performances, though, so I think I’m in the clear here.

Update: David Corn thinks the Washington Post should have given Birnbaum’s article much better play.