Arizona Senate Candidate Mark Kelly Eschews Corporate Cash, but Gave Paid Corporate Speeches as a Private Citizen

The Arizona Democrat has a long history of well-paid corporate speaking gigs. Now he's speaking out against pharmaceutical industry money in politics.

FILE - In this Feb. 23, 2019, file photo, Mark Kelly speaks during his senate campaign kickoff event in Tucson, Ariz. Arizona Republican Martha McSally has formally launched her campaign in one of the most hotly contested Senate races of the 2020 election. McSally has been hiring staff, raising money and campaigning for nearly a year but officially kicked off her election bid with a video posted Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020, to her social media accounts. The 3 1/2-minute video offers a preview of McSally's message for the coming months. McSally is likely to face retired Democratic astronaut Mark Kelly in the November election. The winner will finish the last two years of the late Republican Sen. John McCain's last term in the Senate. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)
Mark Kelly speaks during his Senate campaign kickoff event in Tucson, Ariz., on Feb. 23, 2019. Photo: Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP

In a new ad this week, Arizona Democratic Senate candidate Mark Kelly slammed Washington politicians for taking money from drug companies. While Kelly has mostly eschewed corporate cash as a politician, he has a history of taking corporate — and pharmaceutical industry — money before he launched his Senate bid last February.

“A single prescription can cost thousands,” Kelly says in the ad released Tuesday. “But Washington politicians, they look the other way after taking millions from drug companies.”

Before his political career, Kelly, a former astronaut and Navy combat veteran, gave paid speeches to varied audiences, his campaign said. “Soon after leaving the Navy and NASA, like many other former NASA astronauts, Mark had the opportunity to speak about his experiences to a variety of groups,” said campaign spokesperson Jacob Peters. “Mark has spoken about his experiences in space, the Navy, and overcoming tragedy, and he shares many of those same experiences often with Arizonans on the campaign trail.”

The bulk of Kelly’s paid speaking engagements were made before he became a politician.

His paid speeches, Kelly’s campaign said, do not focus on political or policy matters. Though Kelly often speaks from memory, his campaign released a rough transcript, in the interest of transparency, to the Arizona Republic of what it said was a typical paid speech.

Kelly’s history with corporate cash runs deep. Before entering the race, he received $50,000 in compensation from a Chicago-based investment firm for serving on the boards of two medical transport companies, the Arizona Republic reported.

The bulk of Kelly’s paid speaking engagements were made before he became a politician. From 2012 to 2018, as a private citizen, Kelly gave a raft of paid speeches to pharmaceutical and healthcare industry companies, including Optum, UnitedHealth’s fastest growing subsidiary; AmerisourceBergen, which was under recent federal investigation for its involvement in the opioid crisis; Express Scripts, a company that manages prescriptions online; Innovatix, a group health care purchasing organization, and Paradigm, a hospital and healthcare company focusing on worker’s compensation.

The Intercept previously reported that, from 2011 to 2017, Kelly made some 19 paid corporate speeches. Those earlier speeches also included talks to Goldman Sachs and the Cayman Alternative Investment Summit.

Between January 2018 and June 2019 — a period that covers Kelly’s last year as a private citizen and four months of his Senate race — he pulled in at least $1.8 million from paid corporate speeches.

Since his Senate run began, Kelly has given at least 11 paid speeches to a variety of foundations, academic institutions, and business associations for a total of $256,275.

His campaign said the speeches were to fulfill commitments he had made before launching his Senate bid. One of the paid speeches delivered after the campaign kicked off was to the Wasatch Speaker Series, which was hosted by the Eminent Series Group and sponsored by Intermountain Healthcare.

Kelly promoted his ad launch this week on a local CBS affiliate. “Big pharmaceutical companies are able to protect these profits by being involved in the campaigns to help folks get elected,” he told the local anchor. “That’s one of the reasons I don’t take any corporate PAC money.”

The anti-corporate PAC pledge has been a theme of Kelly’s campaign. He began his Senate bid last year denouncing corporate PAC money — a pledge he reprised in the latest ad, with a focus on pharmaceutical money.

“Drug companies protect their profits, and those politicians, they protect their careers,” Kelly says in the new ad. “But isn’t Congress’s job to protect us?”

At the time Kelly’s corporate speaking history was first reported, his campaign said the speeches were a way to cover expenses in the wake of the assassination attempt on his wife, Gabby Giffords, a former member of Congress from Arizona. The campaign said he would not be accepting any additional paid speeches. Later that month, a lobbying firm representing the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, JPMorgan Chase, and fossil fuel giants Exxon Mobil and Chevron hosted a fundraiser for Kelly in Washington.

Though Kelly has not taken cash directly from corporate PACs, his $20.2 million total haul so far includes at least $306,343 from PACs in general, including some which take corporate money. Kelly has taken at least $7,500 from Keystone America PAC, which is affiliated with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Penn., and receives contributions from health insurance companies Humana and Cardinal Health.

Following reporting on the event by CNN, Kelly’s campaign returned $55,000 to Keppler Speakers, a public speaking agency, for a June 2018 speech he gave in the United Arab Emirates. The speech was  part of a lecture series sponsored by Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, who attended the lecture.

While a number of Democratic senate and presidential candidates ran on similar pledges, many of them violated their commitments or walked them back as their campaigns progressed. At a time when the rejection of corporate money is gaining popularity in the party, a number of dark-money groups are backing Democratic efforts in several key Senate races.

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