Dispatch October 2009

How to Lobby Against Sex Ed

A retired Massachusetts businessman is using his fortune to jam abstinence-only programs into federal health care legislation.
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Most rich people hoping to influence federal policy are content to write checks to fund political campaigns or shuffle cash to advocacy groups that lobby for their causes. But not Raymond Ruddy.  

For more on this topic, see:

The Center for Public Integrity

Ruddy, a 66-year-old retired businessman who runs a pro-life charity in suburban Natick, Massachusetts, is the premier benefactor of the abstinence-only sexual education movement. During the first two quarters of this year’s health care reform debate, Ruddy spent $130,000 of his own money on the influential Washington lobby firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers, now known as BGR Group, to push federal abstinence-only sex education funding, according to Senate public records. Since 2002 the conservative Catholic multimillionaire has spent more than $1.5 million on lobby fees, records show. Most of the money went to BGR, which bills itself as a bipartisan firm that “has the skills to achieve results under the most difficult circumstances.” Haley Barbour, the former head of the Republican National Committee and current governor of Mississippi, was among the firm’s founders.

Ruddy, who worked nearly 17 years for Maximus, a government contractor specializing in health and human services programs, is the rare individual who has dedicated his private wealth to the kind of health lobbying usually done by hired guns representing industry and advocacy groups. A search of Senate lobby disclosure forms reveals lots of organizations with names like Autism Speaks, the National Psoriasis Foundation, and the National Funeral Directors Association, but Ruddy appears to be the only individual who has hired lobby firms during the debate over how to reform health care.

The lone wolf strategy appears to be paying off – so far, anyway.  In late September, the Senate Finance Committee approved an amendment to its health care bill from Utah Republican Orrin Hatch that would reinstate $50 million in annual funding to abstinence-only programs. Earlier this year, President Obama removed funding for the programs from his budget. Several studies have found that abstinence-only sex education programs, which teach abstinence but not birth control or other safe sex practices, are ineffective.

The committee approved its overall bill on Tuesday in a 14 to 9 vote, with all Democrats and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine in support. The Hatch amendment was included in the version that passed.

Hatch spokeswoman Andrea Saul downplayed Ruddy’s influence on the amendment, saying Hatch and his staff had no contact with Ruddy and probably don’t even know who he is. The senator, however, may know Ed Rogers, Robert Wood, and Jennifer Larkin Lukawski, the BGR lobbyists who push Ruddy’s agenda. Prior to starting the firm, Rogers served as a deputy assistant to President George H. W. Bush. Wood was chief of staff to Tommy Thompson, who served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under George W. Bush. Lukawski led House relations at the Heritage Foundation and served as executive director of the House Republican Study Committee, an organization of conservative Republicans in the House.

On May 8 of this year, Rogers donated $1,500 to Hatch, according to Center for Responsive Politics data. Wood and Lukawski each donated $500 to Hatch on the same day in May. Employees of the firm have donated a total of $11,000 to Hatch since 1997. Saul, the Hatch spokeswoman, did not respond to questions about the influence of BGR on the abstinence-only amendment. BGR Group did not respond to requests for comment.

Ruddy declined a telephone interview. But asked about his strategy, he responded by email: “We should be doing everything we can in our society to ensure that our young people receive a complete education when it comes to the potential result of sexual activity prior to marriage.  The truth is the only sure way for young people to avoid STDs, unwanted pregnancies and abortion is to abstain from sexual activity.”

By all accounts, Ruddy’s is the loudest voice on Capitol Hill for abstinence-only sex education. In 2009 Ruddy spent more to lobby on the issue than any abstinence-only advocacy group, including Christian Coalition of America and the National Abstinence Education Association.

“It’s very uncommon,” said Craig Holman, an expert at Public Citizen on the impact of money in politics, of Ruddy’s lobby expenses. In most cases, Holman said wealthy people who are politically active either fund advocacy groups or, like George Soros, inject themselves directly into the debate without the help of lobbyists. “I can’t even remember a time in which a lobbyist reported being hired by an individual,” he said.

Leaving the negotiations to others, however, allows Ruddy to remain a powerful force behind the scenes. A 2007 profile of the abstinence movement in The Nation says Ruddy was an influential figure in welfare privatization and has close ties to Republican power brokers and former President George W. Bush, a strong abstinence-only ally. In addition to direct lobbying, Ruddy is an active funder of conservative issue advocacy groups. His charity, Gerard Health Foundation, is best known for sponsoring the Life Prizes, a program that awards up to $600,000 for pro-life efforts.

A spokeswoman for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, which opposes abstinence-only education, said the Hatch amendment was not a surprise. But the spokeswoman, who declined to be identified by name, said she hopes and expects that the amendment will be cut from any final health reform bill before it leaves Congress, despite Ruddy’s efforts.

That’s certainly possible, given the horse-trading yet to come. But Ruddy’s lobbyists will no doubt continue their work to preserve his considerable investment.  

Joe Eaton is a staff writer at The Center for Public Integrity.
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