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Yacht Cruises Buoy Congressional Favor

A boating group's outings illustrate how lobbyists use gifts and entertainment to curry favor with lawmakers and aides.

September 17, 2006|Mike Dorning | Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — They called it the "Congressional Cruise Series," featuring lovely evenings on a luxury yacht with "two large staterooms ... a deluxe entertainment center and an airy comfortable salon." They billed it, unabashedly, as a way for lobbyists to develop relationships with influential politicians.

By all appearances, the National Marine Manufacturers Assn.'s program of taking members of Congress and their staffs on cruises -- and hosting fundraisers for lawmakers aboard the boat -- succeeded quite nicely.

The cruises have yielded photos of a congressman at the yacht's helm and posed group shots of other lawmakers with their smiling aides, all posted on the association's website. At least one of those congressmen later proposed legislation that the association strongly favored.

Money long has lubricated Washington in myriad ways, from exotic travel to campaign contributions, from the subtle to the blunt. Even with the guilty plea of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose case brought excesses to light, the wheels of Washington continue to turn. The cruises, at least, are in hiatus this summer because of what the association's lobbyist called the "poisoned" atmosphere.

Photographs, newsletters and lobbying reports preserved on the Internet through the website of the Chicago-based trade association for recreational boat manufacturers provide a window into how well-heeled special interests navigate the channels of influence in Washington.

There are images of Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) and members of his congressional staff posing on the yacht while the sun sets behind the Washington Monument. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) poses on the bow with several aides who are holding beverage containers.

In another photo, Rep. John E. Sweeney (R-N.Y.) is pictured at the helm during one of two fundraisers for his reelection campaign held on the yacht. The trade association donated the use of the boat, according to campaign finance records.

In May, Sweeney introduced legislation to give boat manufacturers a tax break for the cost of personal flotation devices and emergency beacons sold together with boats.

A spokeswoman for Sweeney said the trade group's hospitality and campaign contributions did not influence the congressman. She said the tax break grew out of Sweeney's efforts to improve nautical safety after October's boating disaster in his district.

For years, the National Marine Manufacturers Assn. asked one of its member manufacturers to lend the group's Washington lobbying office the use of a new yacht for the warm-weather months. The purpose was "to help our government relations staff develop relationships with key policy makers," the group's political action committee wrote in a report to members.

In 2004 and 2005, the trade association kept a 38-foot Meridian 381 Sedan moored at a marina on the Potomac a few blocks from the Capitol.

The yacht cruises are emblematic of well-established Washington culture in which lobbyists use entertainment and gifts to curry favor with lawmakers and their staffs, said Ross K. Baker, a former congressional staff member and a Rutgers University political science professor who studies Congress.

"Much of this is in the general area of buying access and goodwill for the lobbyist," Baker said. "When the lobbyist shows up at the office, a receptionist who has been part of this outing on the yacht recognizes the lobbyist and gets him in for a meeting with the chief of staff."

Last summer, the trade association hosted more than 50 congressional offices and more than 650 congressional aides aboard the yacht, according to a report written by the trade group's chief lobbyist, Monita W. Fontaine.

Beer, soft drinks and snacks typically were provided on the cruise, Fontaine said.

In a newsletter, the organization described the Potomac yacht trips, which it said ran from mid-June through early October, as a way for members of Congress "to reward their staffs, while at the same time allowing us to thank members for their support of the recreational boating industry."

A recently departed congressional chief of staff said the yacht trips were well known on Capitol Hill as an easily available perk. "It was one of those invites that if you're around long enough lands on your desk," said the former aide, who declined to be named

With the trade association required to make arrangements for a boat by late winter, shortly after the Abramoff scandal erupted and amid speculation that Congress would act to tighten gift rules, the group decided to suspend the cruise series this year, Fontaine said.

"The atmosphere was poisoned at that time, and we didn't have a clarification on what Congress would do with gift rules. Until we have that clarified, we will wait, to make sure everything is above board," she said.

Fontaine said the trade association thought the yacht excursions met current congressional ethics rules, which forbid lawmakers and their staffs from accepting a gift worth $50 or more. On a per-person basis, the association thinks the value of the trips is below that limit, she said.

The trade group also used the yacht as a venue for fundraisers, boasting to its PAC contributors that the boat made for "a unique and fun event." The events gave candidates an edge in raising money in a city where fundraisers "tend to be carbon copies of the same old reception format," the association said.

Other members of Congress whom the trade group's PAC hosted for fundraisers on the yacht included Sens. Richard M. Burr (R-N.C.) and Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Sue W. Kelly (R-N.Y.), Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), James L. Oberstar (D-Minn.), Thomas M. Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), according to trade group and federal campaign finance reports.

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