Buying of the President

Published — July 22, 2016

For special interests, the real party is outside the convention

Dave Levinthal/Center for Public Integrity

Money raised at sponsored events goes to charity, but partygoers aim for influence


CLEVELAND — Even for veteran rocker Rick Springfield, whose chart toppers date to Ronald Reagan’s first term, Tuesday night’s crowd across the Cuyahoga River from the Republican National Convention must’ve seemed decidedly unconventional.

Clusters of young men in standard-issue delegate garb — blue blazers, pleated khakis — milled about. Women shimmied to “Jessie’s Girl” in heels and skirt suits, convention credentials swinging from lanyards around necks.

The concert Tuesday night was “a tribute to the House Republican Whip Team” and was to benefit charity, even though there was no admission fee. So who picked up the tab? Sponsors. Lots of them, virtually all with business before Congress. How much money was going to which charity wasn’t foremost on anyone’s mind.

The show was really a thinly veiled schmooze-fest, where powerful members of Congress and their staffers drank free beer, listened to live music and ate free bratwurst while rubbing elbows with corporate lobbyists, all sanctioned by congressional ethics rules.

During the convention, dozens of organizations have sponsored such events, all with an interest in gaining access to lawmakers and political power brokers.

The events are almost all carefully crafted to fit into exemptions in congressional gift and ethics rules that allow members of Congress to attend, say, charitable fundraisers, or “widely attended events.” Even the honoree wording is particular. Honoring a delegation is allowed, but honoring a specific member, such as, say, House Speaker Paul Ryan, is against the rules.

“These exemptions very quickly become major loopholes to allow lobbyists and others to put on events for officeholders and allow officeholders to go to them for free,” said Lawrence Noble, general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit group.

A sign at the show listing event sponsors. (Dave Levinthal)

Invitation only

The concert at Jacobs Pavilion, an amphitheater by the river, was a private, invitation-only event with its own special pass required for admission.

And prominently displayed — on massive video boards, signs, the amphitheater’s white overhang, the back of the plastic event credentials — were the event sponsors, a long list of blue-chip corporations, from tobacco company Altria, to communications giant Viacom, to political advertising and communications firm Harbinger Outreach, to conglomerate Koch Industries.

Others included Uber and Chevron.

Materials promoting event sponsorship packages note “Concerts for a Cause Pavilion is supported by key convention stakeholders,” including “GOP House Leaders,” “GOP House Whip Leaders” and, for good measure, “Other Party Leaders.”

The event is “intended to comply with the charity fundraising event exception of the House ethics rules.”

The event organizer, Concerts for a Cause, is a charity — even though many sponsors aren’t. Ethics rules require the main purpose of the event to be the raising of funds for charity if members and staff are to accept free admission, and the organizer stresses that benefiting charities is indeed the point.

But attendees can be forgiven for thinking the emphasis was on mixing and mingling with other political insiders, and on Tuesday night, the names of the sponsors, not charities that will receive the money, were on prominent display.

“The conventions are a stocked pond for lobbyists,” Noble said.

The concert is just one of many events filling up the schedule of public officials at the two national conventions this month, almost all of which give lobbyists and professional influencers the opportunity to mingle in a target-rich environment of politicians and their staffers.

Robert Walker, a lawyer at the firm Wiley Rein who specializes in government ethics and has worked for both the House and Senate Ethics Committees, said the rules “do allow members and staff to legitimately attend a wide range of events.”

“Still,” he stressed, “that does not mean that anything goes. There are limits.”

Behind closed doors

The Center for Public Integrity was not invited to the Concerts for a Cause event but spent more than two hours there after gaining admission. The general public, for its part, rarely gets a good look at these affairs.

Take the Western Caucus Foundation, a little-known nonprofit group whose honorary chairs are Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo.

On Wednesday, the Western Caucus Foundation held a “Red, White and Western Whiskey & BBQ Reception” at Mabel’s BBQ in downtown Cleveland, just outside the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena.

A flier obtained by the Center for Public Integrity advertised the event as an opportunity for “invited guests” to meet with members of Congress.

A Center for Public Integrity reporter walked up, presented the invitation on his iPhone to a security guard, announced himself by name and organization and proceeded inside without issue.

A handful of people milled about the industrial-meets-rustic restaurant, chatting and ordering drinks. The doors to the 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. event had just opened, and no formal program had yet begun.

About a minute later, another security guard, earpiece in ear, approached, and ordered the reporter to leave.

The event flier encouraged potential financial backers to contact two event officials listed regarding “support opportunities,” but it’s unclear who sponsored and funded the event. There were no banners or placards visible in the restaurant’s foyer that listed its financial backers.

Still, there are clues as to the foundation’s funders.

The Western Caucus Foundation counts Republicans lawmakers of the Senate Western Caucus and House Western Caucus among its members. Individuals, corporations and other nonprofits may donate to the group and receive a tax credit for doing so.

It describes itself as the “voice of the West” and its mission as “informing and educating policy makers and the public on federal policy issues distinctive to western and rural communities.” It says it is “committed to advancing the following key principles: protecting private property, strengthening local control, promoting economic growth and increasing energy independence.”

The focus on energy issues perhaps explains why a powerful energy industry trade group, the American Gas Association, contributed $12,000 in 2014, when the foundation was still in its infancy, a Center for Public Integrity review of nonprofit tax filings found.

Darrell Henry, the executive director of the Western Caucus Foundation and a former lobbyist for the American Gas Association, the Western Business Roundtable and the Healthcare Waste and Emergency Preparedness Coalition, declined to discuss the event in detail.

“We’re looking forward to a great event with our Western members as our guests tonight,” he said Wednesday, before telling a reporter he was too busy to talk further and hanging up.

Concerts for a Cause

Concerts for a Cause put together three nights of shows at Jacobs Pavilion, featuring not just Springfield but country acts the Band Perry and Lee Brice.

The charity had previously held smaller, single-day events to raise money that was passed on to epilepsy-focused charities, according to the founder, Chad Barth, who created the group in honor of his sister, who has epilepsy.

In fact, Concerts for the Cause has reported less than $50,000 in income per year dating back to 2011, according to Internal Revenue Service filings — a sharp contrast to the sums connected to the Republican National Convention event.

The Jacobs Pavilion venue was at one point quoting a price of more than $2 million for a full convention week rental, according to information obtained by the Center for Public Integrity.

Barth said the $2 million price was too high, calling it “far off,” and stressed that another group is holding concerts at the pavilion on two of the five nights this week.

Nonetheless, the Concerts for a Cause events at the Republican National Convention clearly involved significant money. Talent has to be paid, there are production costs, and the free bratwurst, liquor and at least five kinds of beer served to attendees has to be paid for somehow.

Packages ranged widely in price. For example, one package described in marketing materials was advertised as $875,000 and included 150 general admission tickets and 75 VIP tickets per concert, as well as private VIP event space and VIP viewing platform options.

A more modest emailed pitch for sponsorship packages in connection with Tuesday night’s concert offered a $10,000 “Gold Sponsor” package that included an invitation for one attendee to a VIP sponsor pre-reception, recognition on signage, four VIP tickets, 10 general admission tickets and VIP access during the concert.

Barth said Concerts for a Cause is something he started because of his personal connection to the epilepsy issue via his sister, and he takes the charitable mission seriously.

He said it is now expanding its mission to work with other types of charities, and he said the Republican National Convention events meet a test in House Ethics rules meant to determine whether an event qualifies as a charitable fundraiser members are permitted to attend. The test calls for more than half the amount of money paid for admission is tax-deductible as a charitable contribution.

Barth declined to name the groups that will receive the proceeds or estimate how much money the events would generate for charity. He would say only that the money will go to two Cleveland-based charities and a third charity based elsewhere. The charities are not focused on epilepsy work, he said.

“Everyone around here has become skittish of having their name attached to any of the convention events so we haven’t publicly disclosed those as of yet,” he said, adding that he expects to release the recipients of the money after the convention.

He declined to estimate the size of the contribution, saying costs and contributions were still being accounted for.

Sharing in the electoral process

Of course, sponsors are also paying for these events because it makes sense for business reasons, as well as charitable ones.

“Aflac believes that we are fortunate to reside in a country that enables such incredible opportunity to share in our nation’s electoral process, especially when we can further our philanthropic causes at the same time,” said Jon Sullivan, a spokesman for the company.

Sullivan added that the event “benefits charities like Luke’s Wings, an organization dedicated to the support of veterans who have been wounded in battle and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, two worthy causes that are near and dear to Aflac’s heart.”

Those two charities are also named in some marketing materials for Concerts for a Cause. Barth and representatives of the two charities did not immediately respond to requests for confirmation of the charitable beneficiaries named by Aflac.

Walter Lukens, head of direct marketing firm the Lukens Company, a Concerts for a Cause sponsor, said the company sponsored the event “to kind of elevate our name.”

A concert was a good fit, he said, because “you get decision makers who are 30 years old, and concerts are where those decision makers go. They’re not in a smoke-filled room in a steakhouse. They’re looking to have fun.”

“Concerts,” he added, “are fun.”

Meanwhile, Springfield, the headliner, was having a bit of fun of his own.

“We have a new record out — I’m sure you don’t give a s— at this point, and neither do I,” he said as Tuesday night bled into early Wednesday morning.

At one point, he smiled wryly and threw his hands in the air, revealing the white letters on his size-too-small t-shirt: NOT AN ENDORSEMENT.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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