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Gala's big donors happen to have issues of their own

August 25, 2008|Tom Hamburger and Vimal Patel | Times Staff Writers

DENVER — Last year, when a union for government workers in Colorado needed help from Gov. Bill Ritter, he issued an executive order making it possible to organize state employees. Months later, it was Ritter who needed a favor, and the union readily delivered a $500,000 donation to help fund the Democratic National Convention.

Like the governor, Colorado's congressional delegation also managed to find folks eager to help pay for the convention. It called on Qwest Communications International Inc., a company seeking help in Congress with a case pending before the Federal Communications Commission. One House member, Rep. Diana DeGette, active on the convention's fundraising committee, wrote to the agency about the case. Qwest, at $6 million, is now the largest donor to the convention.

Ritter and DeGette emphatically deny any connection between official actions and donations to the convention host committee. But the coincidence of these actions speaks to the problem facing public officials raising large donations for both political parties' conventions: The largest donors frequently have some of the largest business issues pending before state and federal agencies at the time lawmakers ask them to donate.

Qwest, which offered cash and in-kind services, is appealing a long-standing case before the FCC that would give it relief from regulatory requirements.

The case also affects Qwest's sometimes competitor, the cable and Internet behemoth Comcast Corp., which, like other telecommunications companies, has huge policy questions pending in Washington. Comcast provided a total of $5 million to the Democrats, mostly in video and other services, according to the Campaign Finance Institute, a nonpartisan research and advocacy organization.

Electric utility Xcel Energy Inc., a major donor to both conventions, has issues before the public utility commissions in Colorado and Minnesota, where the Republican convention will be, as well as before federal regulators. It is based in Minnesota but is also the largest supplier of electricity to Colorado.

And UnitedHealth Group Inc., which also donated to both events, plays a central role in the health policy and insurance debates already coursing through the executive and legislative branches.

All of the donors said their giving was unrelated to any government policy decisions.

In the case of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Colorado has historically limited union efforts to organize state workers. Last year, Ritter vetoed legislation that would have given unions sweeping new rights, but later issued an executive order that allowed the federation, in a coalition with other public employee unions, to launch its current drive -- said to have signed up about 35,000 of the state's 50,000 employees thus far.

If the federation succeeds in getting enough signatures to represent workers in contract talks, it will, directly or indirectly, be bargaining with a governor who sought and received major financial support from it.

A spokesman for Ritter did not dispute the account of his fundraising. "The governor had an obligation to raise funds for the convention and the financial obligation is tremendous," said Evan Dreyer, Ritter's communications director, adding that the governor's executive order was written independent of any requests from unions.

At the federation, political director Lawrence Scanlon said the donation had "absolutely no connection" with the union's organizing drive. "This is about civic pride for the state of Colorado. From our union's perspective, we are supporting the Democratic candidate and party, and it needs to have the money to run a good convention program. You can't do it in a pup tent."

Colorado members of Congress who were raising money said their efforts were similarly altruistic.

A spokesman for DeGette said that she did write a letter to the FCC regarding Qwest's case but that it did not take sides in the matter. The spokesman, Kristofer Eisenla, said that the letter was unrelated to convention fundraising efforts and that she never asked Qwest for funds. DeGette is a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the FCC.

"It's not my favorite activity," DeGette said about such fundraising. "It's not some secretive soft money slush fund, because it's really going to a convention" that will be a boon for the city and the state.

Fundraising calls by governors and prominent members of Congress are not unusual, particularly this year, when the convention hosts, Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul, are mid-size cities and must solicit huge sums from a relatively small donor pool.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, has been calling corporate chiefs in his state. Initially, the host committee suggested the executives be promised personal meetings to "connect with influential government officials (Cabinet, president, next president)," according to a memo prepared for the governor.

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