Conventions highlight gaps in ethics laws

Sign directing traffic to K Street, home to a row of infamous Washington, DC lobbying firms. (Photo/ M.V. Jantzen, Flickr)
Sign directing traffic to K Street, home to a row of infamous Washington, DC lobbying firms. (Photo/ M.V. Jantzen, Flickr)

It was one of the chief vows of the Democratic Party as it took control of both congressional chambers in 2007: to sever the cozy relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers brought to light by the Jack Abramoff scandals.

Congress passed sweeping lobbying and ethics reforms last year, and this was the first convention season under the stringent new rules. Yet, despite the enactment of the new regulations, campaign-finance watchdogs argue that much remains to be done to stem the abuses. The groups are pointing to the national conventions as evidence that ethics laws, both new and old, leave gaping loopholes still to be addressed.

“The law clearly had an effect,” said Josh Zaharoff, assistant director of campaign finance at Common Cause. “But there’s still very much of that element of companies using the conventions to gain access … Clearly these corporations saw it as a chance to buy influence.”

Zaharoff wasn’t kidding.

In Minneapolis last week, Republican leaders vowed to scale back the events surrounding their convention in recognition of those suffering from the arrival of Hurricane Gustav on Monday. Yet that call did little to break the partying spirit of convention attendees. Instead of scrapping the parties, many sponsors simply reconfigured them as charity events for victims of the storm.

Nancy Watzman of Political Party Time, a project of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group focused on the federal government, trekked tirelessly from gala to gala in both Minneapolis and Denver — usually to be turned back at the door. She reported from Minnesota last week on a big-pharma-sponsored breakfast featuring an appearance by Rep. Michael Rogers (R-Mich.).

ABC’s Brian Ross discovered Mississippi River paddle-wheel boat excursions for Ohio’s GOP delegation sponsored by the chemical industry. Oil companies, he found, hosted the California delegation with a pig roast.

Despite Gustav, Ross concluded, “corporate lobbyists went ahead with their plans … to spend millions of dollars entertaining key Republican lawmakers and officials.”

The Democratic National Convention in Denver (DNC), meanwhile, looked like a party marathon. The DNC boasted more than 400 events sponsored by outside interest groups, according to a document created by Quinn Gillespie & Associates, a lobbying firm, and publicized by the Sunlight Foundation.

While many of those events were bare-bones, advocate-sponsored forums focused on issues, others were lavish, corporate-sponsored galas targeting members of Congress and other Democratic officials — everything from an AT&T-funded luncheon for the Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island delegations at the Pinnacle Club, a private event space high atop the Grand Haytt, to a gathering of Democratic attorneys general at the Ritz-Carlton, sponsored by AstroZeneca, a pharmaceutical giant facing numerous suits in federal and state courts.

Like many lobbying groups, the Poker Players Alliance sponsored events in both cities. To generate attention among many convention-related activities, the alliance brought along Hollywood stars. In Denver, for example, celebrities like Ben Affleck and Sarah Silverman were at the event. The alliance’s Web site does nothing to disguise the group’s intentions, saying it “is taking advantage of the concentration of delegates and members of Congress … to continue to lobby for the legalization of online poker.”

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

In the wake of a series of ethics scandals involving several Republicans’ illegal dealings with lobbyists — most prominently the separate episodes that sent former Reps. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) and Bob Ney (R-Ohio) to prison — Democrats in 2006 ran on a platform of distancing Congress members from the influence of moneyed interests.

“Our goal is to restore accountability, honesty and openness at all levels of government,” reads a passage from the House Democrats’ “New Direction” agenda. “To do so, we will create and enforce rules that demand the highest ethics from every public servant, sever unethical ties between lawmakers and lobbyists and establish clear standards that prevent the trading of official business for gifts.”

That vow culminated in the 2007 passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a law that prohibits members of Congress from participating in lobbyist-funded events designed to “honor” or “recognize” lawmakers at the conventions.

But the ethics committees in each chamber interpreted that law differently. The House panel claims that the rule applies only to events honoring single members, and not to those recognizing groups of lawmakers. Watchdog groups say the trouble is not with the law itself, but with this interpretation.

“The rules are actually very, very good — and very sweeping,” said Craig Holman, a campaign-finance reform lobbyist for Public Citizen. “The problem has been the enforcement. … When you’ve got different interpretations [of the law], you see lobbyists exploiting that as a loophole.”

Fred Wertheimer, president and CEO of Democracy 21, a campaign-finance watchdog, issued a statement last month warning lawmakers away from a corporate-sponsored Denver event honoring the freshman class of House Democrats. The ethics committee’s ruling, he argued, should not set members above the intent of the law.

“This so-called ‘guidance’ not only is an incorrect interpretation of the new ethics rule,” he said, “it makes no sense.”

Watchdog groups are also critical of an interpretation of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign reform act that allows corporations and other donors to make unlimited contributions to a national convention’s host committee. That ruling, passed down by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), reasons that the donations are aimed to booster the host cities, not the political parties — something many watchdog groups dispute.

“It’s party leaders who actually head the committee and make the decisions,” said Zaharoff of Common Cause. “[The companies] wouldn’t do it if it didn’t benefit them.”

Watchdogs want to amend these interpretations, or enact clarifying legislation if the FEC and ethics committees fail to revisit the current laws. Holman of Public Citizen predicted that Congress would take up the issue again next year.

“The FEC,” Holman said, “has a history of not closing the floodgates that they open. We’ll have to revisit it with new legislation.”

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