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CONVENTION 2000 / THE DEMOCRATIC CONVENTION

Cash Making Its Presence Known at the Conventions

The events bring together private interests that need friendly treatment from government with officials who need money for an attention- getting political gala.

August 13, 2000|T. CHRISTIAN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most of the major corporate donors to this year's Democratic and Republican national conventions are lobbying Congress or federal agencies on business issues that affect their bottom lines.

Companies such as General Motors and Motorola pledged to donate millions of dollars worth of services at the two events, even as they lobbied officials on a host of regulatory issues, ranging from free trade with China to the Defense Department budget, according to a review of lobbying records.

All told, seven of the 11 companies that have given more than $1 million to the Democratic convention listed expenditures for federal lobbying within the last year, records show. Six of the seven companies estimated to have given more than $1 million to the GOP convention did the same thing.

SBC Communications, for instance, which has donated $1 million to the Democratic convention, spent more than $9.4 million this year and last in lobbying on a variety of telecommunications issues, ranging from satellite television to long-distance phone service to Internet gambling.

Corporate donors cite a variety of reasons for giving large sums to the conventions, including civic pride and brand-name marketing.

But skeptics cite the contributions as evidence of the strong confluence of corporate and political interests in the events. During their pageants, the conventions bring together wealthy private concerns that need friendly government treatment with officials who need money for an attention-getting political event.

"Money is speaking more than anything else at the conventions," said Meredith McGehee, senior vice president of Common Cause, a public interest group that advocates for campaign finance reform. "They're basically a chance to schmooze and a chance to fund-raise."

Corporate donors insist that conventions are actually among the worst places to seek government influence, because the donations go to the local group of businessmen and civic boosters hosting the event, not the power brokers who run the Republican and Democratic political parties.

Attorney David Cohen knows something about such giving. Not only did he chair the coalition that brought the GOP convention to Philadelphia this year, but his firm--Ballard, Spahr, Andrews and Ingersoll--donated more than $1 million in legal services.

"You get no goodwill in giving to us," said Cohen, a former aide to Philadelphia Mayor Edward G. Rendell, now national chairman of the Democratic National Committee. "There's no benefit, no access, and extremely little branding."

Goods and Services Flow Freely

But the companies clearly see value. AT&T and Motorola, which each donated more than $1 million worth of phones and communication equipment to the GOP and Democratic conventions, both have a host of business issues wrapped up in the political world, ranging from free trade with China to regulatory actions.

General Motors, for instance, spent more than $5.8 million in 1999 on lobbying everything from the Department of Defense budget to bankruptcy reform, records show. This year, as high gasoline prices renewed calls for tougher fuel economy standards, the company put up an estimated $2 million worth of transportation for delegates, guests and congressional leaders at both conventions.

Telecommunications businesses came out in force for the two conventions, including Verizon Communications, Comcast Corp. and SBC Communications, all of whom donated goods or services estimated to be worth more than $1 million. Such companies face regulatory battles over long-distance phone service, electronic signatures and Internet taxation.

Global Crossing Ltd., a telecommunications firm busy laying undersea cables to transmit data between continents, is a case in point.

Headed by Gary Winnick, one of Los Angeles' richest men, the company and its employees have kept a low political profile in the past. Winnick and employees at Global Crossing and Pacific Capital, another of Winnick's firms, gave a total of about $154,000 to Democrats and Republicans during the 1997-98 political cycle, according to records kept by the Campaign Study Group.

But this year, albeit a presidential one, Winnick, his companies and employees increased their giving to about $1.7 million.

The increased donations come as Global Crossing works to complete by next month a super-high-capacity fiber-optic cable across the Atlantic Ocean, a project subject to regulation by the Federal Communications Commission.

A corporate spokeswoman, who declined to give her name for the record, noted that Global Crossing gave to Democrats and Republicans alike. The firm's leaders "support the political process, and they've given to the Democrats because they want to make sure things go well with their hometown," the spokeswoman said.

Exposure a Bonus to the Write-Off

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