NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Republican Fred Thompson, who likes to cast himself in the role of Washington outsider, has a long history as a political insider who earned more than $1 million lobbying the federal government.
As a lobbyist for more than 20 years, billion-dollar corporations paid Thompson for his access to members of Congress and White House staff. During that time he was close to two Senate majority leaders, both from his home state of Tennessee - his political mentor Howard Baker and, more recently, his former colleague Bill Frist.
During Baker's tenure, Thompson lobbied for a savings-and-loan deregulation bill that helped hasten the industry's collapse and a failed nuclear energy project that cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars.
More recently, while Frist led the Senate, Thompson earned more than $750,000 lobbying for a British reinsurance company that wanted to limit its liability from asbestos lawsuits.
That history as a Washington insider is at odds with the image Thompson has sought to convey to voters. When he first ran for the Senate in 1993, Thompson cast himself in the part of the gruff, plainspoken everyman, leased a red pickup truck and drove around Tennessee in his shirt sleeves.
Now, as he considers an expected run for president in 2008, the actor-politician continues to position himself as a political outsider.
However, lobbying has been a steady side gig for Thompson ever since the end of the Watergate hearings that brought him to Washington in 1973 as minority counsel for the investigative committee co-chaired by the GOP's Baker. Lobbying clients paid him about half a million dollars between 1975 and 1993, when he started his campaign for the Senate. He released 20 years worth of tax returns during the race.
When Baker became Senate majority leader in 1981, lobbying provided Thompson with about 80 percent of his total income.
One of his clients at the time was the Tennessee Savings and Loan League, on whose behalf Thompson lobbied for a bill to deregulate the industry. Experts say the final version of that bill played a large role in the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s, opening the door to widespread fraud and mismanagement.
The fiasco ultimately led to about a $150 billion taxpayer bailout of the industry, said Robert Litan, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution and co-author of a 1993 report on the causes of the disaster that describes the influence of lobbyists as "pervasive, pernicious - and effective."
Thompson defended his S&L lobbying in a 1994 interview with The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, Tenn., saying that both parties agreed at the time that regulations limiting the industry's competitiveness needed to be relaxed.
Thompson's first and longest-running lobbying client was Westinghouse Electric Co., for whom he lobbied in favor of nuclear energy. In 1981, he received a little less than $54,000 from the company. At the time Westinghouse was receiving federal funds for Tennessee's Clinch River nuclear project.
A spokesman for Thompson, Mark Corallo, said the experimental reactor "was a local project focused on new kinds of energy at a time when the U.S. was going through an energy crisis."
The reactor was never built and the project was canceled in 1983 after the government had spent $1.7 billion on it.
The spokesman said Thompson was unavailable to comment for this article.
Even after Thompson left the Senate in 2003 with a plum job playing District Attorney Arthur Branch on the NBC drama series "Law & Order" he continued to lobby, this time for Equitas, a British reinsurance company that handles billions of dollars of asbestos claims for Lloyd's of London. That earned him more than $750,000 over the past three years, including $300,000 in 2005, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
The firm had complained it was being treated differently from American companies in a bill designed to remove the about 600,000 asbestos lawsuits from the courts and create a trust fund for victims. The bill was supported by companies facing lawsuits and opposed by many victims and their attorneys.
Since leaving the Senate Thompson has continued to have close contact with powerful Republicans, including members of the Bush administration. That includes acting as the president's point man in guiding Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts through the Senate confirmation process in 2005.
Thompson also helped run the Scooter Libby Legal Defense Fund Trust, an organization that set out to raise more than $5 million to help finance the legal defense of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, who was convicted in March of lying and obstructing Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation into the leak of a CIA operative's identity.
"This is no political outsider," said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for government ethics and campaign finance reform with Public Citizen. "He clearly gained a network of contacts in Congress though Howard Baker that he cashed in on and would represent anyone who would pay him."