By David Moore and Donald Shaw, Sludge
Georgia Republican Herschel Walker is the only candidate in the upcoming Senate elections who gave paid speeches to lobbying groups as a declared candidate.
Walker announced his campaign on August 25, 2021 and then on August 27, he gave the keynote speech at the Texas Bankers Association’s annual convention. His financial disclosure says that he was paid $35,000 for the appearance. A week later, on September 2, Walker was paid $20,000 by the Georgia Association of Realtors for delivering a speech, according to the disclosure.
The parent entities of both the Texas Bankers Association and the Georgia Association of Realtors are among the largest and most powerful federal lobbying forces in the country. The American Bankers Association typically spends about $10 million per year lobbying Congress and other government agencies, while the National Association of Realtors has been spending between $40 million and $80 million on federal lobbying in recent years and is consistently among the top handful of lobbying spenders in Washington, D.C.
While it’s not illegal for congressional candidates to take personal payments from lobbying groups, a government ethics expert with the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) said it’s concerning.
“Paid speeches from lobbying groups to declared political candidates raise significant concerns about whose interests that person will represent if elected — their constituents or their financial sponsors,” said CREW Chief Legal Counsel and Vice President Donald Sherman.
More Perfect Union and Sludge reviewed the available financial disclosures of the candidates in the other 33 Senate races this year and found that while several of them and their spouses disclosed giving paid speeches as candidates, Walker is the only one who was paid for speeches by industry groups whose primary purpose is to lobby the government.
Walker is running in Georgia against incumbent Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. On Monday evening, Walker’s campaign was rocked by the publication of allegations that he had paid for a former girlfriend’s abortion despite advocating a total abortion ban with no execptions for rape or incest.
The September 2021 speech was the second time Walker had been paid to speak by the Georgia Association of Realtors. He first spoke to the group in 2013, according to a spokesperson for the organization. The spokesperson said the group booked Walker to give the September 2021 speech a year earlier and did not know at the time of booking that he would be announcing his Senate candidacy. The Texas Bankers Association did not respond to a request for comment.
Walker’s financial disclosure shows that he gave more than 20 paid speeches from 2021 through July 2022, but the only speeches he delivered to lobbying organizations were the two that happened right after he announced his federal candidacy.
The Walker campaign did not respond to a request for comment on his paid speeches to the two lobbying groups.
Deep-Pocketed Lobbying Groups
Founded in 1885, the Texas Bankers Association (TBA) describes itself as the largest state-based trade association for bankers. While it mainly lobbies in Texas, the group also lobbies the federal government and Congress. It signs letters to members of Congress opposing and supporting legislation, and in the recent past it employed the law firm Jones Walker to lobby the U.S. House and Senate, according to federal lobbying records. At the congressional level, its website says, the association promotes “the Texas perspective on financial modernization, bankruptcy reform and regulatory relief.”
In the 2022 election cycle, TBA’s PAC has contributed more than $300,000 to the American Bankers Association’s (ABA) PAC, according to FEC data. The ABA PAC donates millions each cycle to federal candidates, mainly Republicans. The TBA has also made PAC donations to congressional candidates, all of them Republicans over the past decade, and to groups like the National Republican Congressional Committee.
The Georgia Association of Realtors bills itself as the largest trade association in the state, with more than 51,000 members. In state elections, the group’s PAC has given Republican candidates about two-thirds of its more than $4 million in total donations, according to data from OpenSecrets, and this cycle it has donated a total of $5,000 to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp in his re-election bid. The association is primarily state-focused, but it also advocates on federal issues from time to time, such as when in July 2021 it sent U.S. senators a letter regarding emergency rental assistance funding and urging an end to the eviction moratorium. The national realtors group lobbies the government to preserve tax incentives for investing in real estate and on a multitude of other legislative and regulatory issues affecting the real estate industry.
No Evidence of Charitable Donations
While Walker delivered paid speeches for personal profits, there’s also evidence that Walker has reneged on promises to use his wealth to support others.
Since 2002, Walker has owned food distribution companies, including at least one that claimed for many years to donate a portion of its profits to charities.
One of Walker’s company websites—for Herschel’s Famous 34 brand of breaded chicken and ribs—stated from 2002 to 2009 that it donated 15% of its profits to various nonprofits.
“As a minority-owned and family-operated business, Herschel’s Famous 34 respects its roots and is dedicated to helping others who are less fortunate,” reads an archived version of the website. “That is why, as part of its corporate charter, 15% of all profits are given to various non-profit charitable organizations serving people in need. From Multiple Sclerosis, to The Special Olympics, to PE for Life programs, to the Boy Scouts, and beyond, Herschel’s Famous 34 reaches far and wide to make a difference on and off the field.”
However, a recent investigation by the New York Times found no evidence that Walker’s company ever followed through on these donations.
The Times contacted the four charities that Walker’s business named as recipients of its donations and three said they had never received donations from Walker and one declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Walker campaign told the reporters that the candidate had donated millions of dollars to charities, but declined to say when or if Walker’s company made the donations it promised, according to the report. The Times similarly found no evidence that the company had a corporate charter that required it to make donations to charities.
Walker’s financial disclosure shows that he earned more than $3 million from the beginning of 2021 through August 15, 2022 from a holding company called H. Walker Enterprises, which now sells Herschel’s Famous 34 products, among other brands.