Conservative Dark-Money Group One Nation Adds Former Pfizer Lobbyist to Board While Running GOP Senate Ads for Lower Drug Prices

Ken Cole was a lobbyist for Pfizer and sat on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, both of which have lobbied against bills that would lower drug prices.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images

One Nation, one of the dark-money groups spending the most to back Republican candidates for Senate, added a former Pfizer lobbyist and U.S. Chamber of Commerce board member to its board of directors at the end of 2019. One Nation has spent $1.7 million already this year on ads praising the efforts of Republican senators, including the push for lower drug prices, a cause both Pfizer and the Chamber have lobbied against

The group is part of the network of conservative fundraisers — under the “Crossroads” umbrella — launched by Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United. Former staffers for Crossroads GPS, the 501(c)(4) wing of Rove and Gillespie’s Super PAC, American Crossroads, started One Nation in 2015 after a yearslong fight with the Internal Revenue Service for tax-exempt status. Crossroads eventually received that status in 2016. Although the group has been relatively dormant since 2014, it maintains fundraising efforts and ended 2019 with $35.5 million cash on hand. 

Ken W. Cole, who has long worked in government relations for companies like General Motors and Honeywell, as well as the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, joined the board of One Nation last year. The group listed Cole as a director on its latest annual report, filed to the Virginia State Corporation Commission in March, but he’s not yet listed publicly on its website.

Cole lobbied on behalf of Pfizer as senior vice president of government relations from 2010 to February 2018, on issues including drug pricing and drug shortages. Pfizer has placed the blame for high drug prices on health care providers and insurers, while it has fought recent legislative efforts aimed at reducing drug prices. Since at least 2014, Cole has also served on the board for the Chamber of Commerce, which has similarly opposed legislative efforts to cut drug costs or allow the government to fine companies for inflating prices.

Pfizer and the Chamber of Commerce have collectively spent just under $1 billion on lobbying over the last decade, with Pfizer typically spending around $10 million each year, and the Chamber spending more than $60 million. In recent years, that included efforts to kill legislation aimed at lowering the cost of prescription drug prices, including a bipartisan prescription drug-pricing bill put forward last September by Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden. President Donald Trump has praised the bill and earlier this year called on Congress to pass legislation to address rising drug costs. The Senate bill, which Grassley has accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of sabotaging, remains deadlocked, while a companion bill in the House, which Pfizer and the Chamber also lobbied against, passed last year. The Chamber, meanwhile, supported a separate drug-pricing bill from Idaho Republican Sen. Mike Crapo, saying that it “would help reduce drug prices without resorting to destructive price controls,” citing “inflation cap penalties” in the Grassley-Wyden bill and “government negotiation provisions” in the House bill. 

Cole is currently the CEO and managing director of Cactus Consulting LLC, a firm registered in January 2019 in the District of Columbia, with principal offices based in Florida

One Nation defended its board appointment of Cole, claiming that his work for Pfizer was not a conflict since he left the company early last year. “Ken has been a respected leader in a variety of different companies and industries. After he retired, we sought him out for his breadth of management experience and judgment,” One Nation President Steven Law said in a statement to The Intercept. “Our boards provide guidance on macro issues like financial controls, budgets, compensation and management policies. They do not direct day-to-day activities.”

Law, the CEO of Crossroads GPS, American Crossroads, Senate Leadership Fund, and One Nation, is also a former chief of staff to McConnell and a former legal officer for the Chamber of Commerce. 

As a 501(c)(4) group, One Nation is not required to disclose its donors, but voluntary disclosures from a number of interest groups shed light on its funds. The dark-money group received major contributions of $1 million in 2016 and 2017 from Andeavor, an oil company bought in 2018 by an Ohio petroleum conglomerate. In 2018, One Nation also received $50,000 from the American Petroleum Institute, and another $50,000 from the Real Estate Roundtable in 2017. 

One Nation is the single largest group contributing to the Senate Leadership Fund, the McConnell-aligned Super PAC backing Republican Senate candidates. It’s the political action committee’s second-largest donor overall this cycle, after Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman. It has also contributed to conservative groups working on policy issues like abortion and gun rights, like the National Rifle Association and the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion group. The group has spent more than $1 million already this year backing Maine Sen. Susan Collins, including ads in January, February, and March highlighting “Collins’ effort to lower the price of insulin.” Democrats note that Collins — like almost every other Republican — voted repeatedly against the Affordable Care Act and closing the Medicare Part D coverage gap. Collins has taken $431,604 from the pharmaceutical industry throughout her career. 

Collins, whose chances of securing a fifth term became less certain after her vote to confirm Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh in 2018 and increased criticism over her stance on abortion rights, is facing a challenge from Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon, backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, and Betsy Sweet, backed by Justice Democrats. In the wake of Collins’s vote to confirm Kavanaugh, activist Ady Barkan helped raise more than $4 million to support whoever wins the state’s Democratic primary in July. 

In addition to Collins, One Nation is backing Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst and started running ads supporting her last year. On March 18, One Nation announced another $970,000 in television, radio, and digital ads praising Ernst as a champion for lower drug prices. Ernst said she supported, but did not sponsor, the Wyden-Grassley bill that Pfizer and the Chamber lobbied against, but voted against a 2017 bill that would have allowed the U.S. to import cheaper drugs from Canada. 

Ernst in 2018 co-sponsored a Republican-led bill as part of a party effort to assuage fears among its base after its successful repeal of parts of the Affordable Care Act. Republicans said the bill would protect people with preexisting conditions, but it would still have allowed insurers to discriminate against patients  for other reasons, or sell policies that don’t cover other medical problems, HuffPost reported

Critics say it’s unsettling, if not unsurprising, that a McConnell-aligned dark-money group would add a former pharmaceutical lobbyist to its board while running ads celebrating Republican senators for pushing lower drug prices, a cause McConnell himself has stymied in Congress. 

“One Nation’s mission is to make sure that Republicans hold their majority in the Senate. They are going to craft their message around that,” said Robert Maguire, research director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “It does not mean that One Nation has staked out that policy. They think that voters in Maine want to hear that.” 

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