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Receptions Here Are Warm--and Fuzzy

Exclusive parties give lobbyists and executives prized access to public officials without the scrutiny or disclosure that lobbying usually requires.


Back in Washington, it's nearly impossible for the head of a major energy company to get a one-on-one meeting with Secretary of Energy Bill Richardson.

It's a far different story at this week's Democratic convention.

Richardson was cornered by the chief executive officer of Sempra Energy in a dimly lit downtown restaurant at a swank party his company threw Monday evening for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and its head, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard.

The San Diego firm forked over $50,000 to host the lavish, late-night affair, and Sempra's chief wasn't about to let the Cabinet official who regulates his industry escape without getting an earful about price controls.

CEO Steve Baum said he pleaded with Richardson to maintain government-imposed price caps that have helped lower the cost of electricity during this summer's energy crunch.

Such exclusive, invitation-only events are not fund-raisers, but they allow lobbyists and corporate executives extraordinary access to top public officials without any of the scrutiny or disclosure that lobbying activity usually requires.

"I was using my temporary bully pulpit. . . ," said Baum, who also buttonholed House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) at the event. "This is not back-room politics."

No, instead, it's dining-room politics, the sort that has come to dominate this year's conventions as big corporations spend millions of dollars on private celebrations in honor of individual members of Congress.

Richardson said he attended the event because it was held for Roybal-Allard, a Los Angeles Democrat who had three such corporate parties thrown in her honor.

Richardson said he couldn't have attended the dinner if it had been thrown in his honor, because Cabinet ethics rules prohibit such events to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Richardson, a Latino appointee and former New Mexico congressman, said Baum's lobbying efforts were appropriate and that he only promised to "consider" what Baum suggested. Still, Richardson said voters were right to be concerned about such celebrations.

"I suspect there is an advantage to staging events like this," he said.

Though Democrats have shown more willingness this week than Republicans during their convention to throw open the private parties to reporters, watchdog groups say the events create an impression of corporate favoritism.

The Millennium Convention Project, a Web site dedicated to tracking events at the conventions, counted 29 receptions this week, compared to 14 events during the Republican convention.

"You have to pay to play," said Scott Harshbarger, director of Common Cause. "It's about influence, it's about access, and it's about a perceived quid pro quo."

Roybal-Allard, a rising star who serves on the influential Appropriations Committee, may have been feted more than any other House member this week. She agreed to let a Times reporter accompany her to the events.

First came a modest gathering at the San Antonio Winery held by Bank of America on Monday. The bank, one of the biggest mortgage lenders in the state, stands to benefit from a Roybal-Allard bill that would award tax credits for making second mortgages available to low-income homeowners.

Also at the event were other lawmakers of interest to BofA: House Banking and Financial Services Committee members Nydia M. Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), and Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee.

Next was the evening reception downtown at Cicada, where 450 guests dined on heaping trays of steak served beneath a gold-leaf ceiling. The final event was Tuesday, when Roybal-Allard attended a reception in her honor at Union Station thrown by Burlington Northern Santa Fe railway.

One of the rail line's most heavily traveled routes runs through Roybal-Allard's district. It has been the subject of numerous complaints from neighbors and city officials about noise and traffic congestion. Roybal-Allard's staffers acknowledge such complaints but say they have died down in the past year.

Roybal-Allard said that, as long as the sponsors of the events are disclosed, there is little chance for a conflict of interest.

"We should always be vigilant to make sure the process is open," said Roybal-Allard, daughter of the legendary Rep. Ed Roybal. "I think in general . . . there's always a concern."

One of the biggest events for a member of Congress was the Tuesday night fete at Paramount Studios for Sen. John B. Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat widely seen as one of the primary deal makers on Capitol Hill and a member of the influential Commerce and Finance committees.

Guests arriving at the bash were greeted by the sight of Breaux dressed in a fluorescent orange jumpsuit, wearing a washboard and playing spoons onstage as he imitated James Brown.

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