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Despite ban on special interest money, lobbyists flood in

Only official inaugural events are covered by Obama's decree, and these make up a small subset of all the festivities in the capital.

January 18, 2009|Andrew Zajac

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama says he does not want to use special interest money to pay for inaugural events, but the lobbyists are coming anyway.

The calendar is chock-full of parties and receptions, brunches and breakfasts -- not to mention lunches, dinners and prayer services. Many, and perhaps most, are designed to bring those who need influence into contact with those who wield it.

A running and incomplete tally of official and unofficial events kept by a Washington lobbyist runs to 41 pages, and at least 206 events crammed into the seven-day period that began Jan. 14.

Obama's ban on money directly from lobbyists, corporations, political action committees and labor unions affects only official events overseen by the Presidential Inaugural Committee. These events constitute a small subset of all the backslapping and rug-cutting occurring in the capital.

The committee's rules on giving allow individuals to donate up to $50,000, or "bundle" as much as $300,000.

More than three-quarters of the $35 million donated by last week toward the target of $45 million was raised by bundlers, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan consumer group Public Citizen.

Among them are executives from at least half a dozen beleaguered Wall Street firms, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the bankrupt Lehman Bros., the analysis showed.

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Hard to ignore

Obama should be lauded for curbing special interest money and being more open about disclosing who is giving, but "what they ought to do is push for public funding to make sure a small group of people doesn't get special access," said David Arkush of Public Citizen. "It's got to be hard to ignore people who give you $50,000."

Donors of at least $10,000 receive admission to one of three inauguration eve dinners that the Obamas and Joe and Jill Biden are expected to attend.

Committee spokeswoman Linda Douglass said the donations were from personal bank accounts and not corporate coffers.

Restrictions Obama has placed on fundraising are "the greatest in recent inaugural history, and our transparency is unprecedented," Douglass said.

The inaugural committee is posting online the names of donors and the amounts given.

Although limiting the amount of easily identifiable special interest money may allow Obama to score some public relations points, it also may have the perverse effect of making inaugural season lobbying and schmoozing more efficient, said Kent Cooper, who runs Capitol Hill Access, a website that tracks Washington's political and lobbying networks.

Rather than donate to a larger inaugural fund where "the impression you're making is totally diluted," Cooper said, some people may choose to host smaller, unofficial events.

"My guess is they all like this [ban] because they can decide how to spend their own money," Cooper said of donors. "They can do smaller, more targeted events. They can decide which staff member is going to try to talk to so-and-so."

Many of the shindigs involve trade groups, lobbyists and law firms entertaining their own members, customers and clients in town for the swearing-in.

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Big-ticket events

But an inauguration inevitably brings the winning party's elite donors to town and a slew of big-ticket, limited-access events gives them numerous opportunities to rub elbows with congressional and executive branch decision-makers.

For example, the Recording Industry Assn. of America is throwing a star-studded ball headlined by singer Rihanna and rapper Ludacris among others, and co-hosted by Courtney Cox and Rosanna Arquette, at the Ibiza nightclub Tuesday night.

The $2,500-per-ticket, invitation-only event is a benefit for Feeding America, a domestic hunger relief charity.

But it also promises to bring together many members of Congress and high-level administration appointees with association members, at least some of whom have concerns about music piracy and other issues overseen or influenced by the federal government.

Eighteen sponsors ponied up $25,000 to $200,000 to underwrite the event.

They include Bank of America, which last week closed a deal to receive a fresh infusion of $20 billion in government bailout funding.

Not all events are high-profile. Some seek to avoid publicity.

On Monday night, for example, there's an invitation-only reception for new members of Congress at the ritzy Charlie Palmer steakhouse.

Who's paying for it?

"My sponsors have asked me to keep them out of the press," said event planner Ryan Costello.

According to the Welcome New Members website, sponsors include Wal-Mart, Kraft, Heineken, the Food Marketing Institute and several other businesses and trade groups.

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Grateful members

Although networking would seem to be the primary political benefit of all the partying, at least a few events are geared toward raising campaign money.

On Monday afternoon, lawyers and lobbyists affiliated with the Greenberg Traurig law firm are hosting a $1,000-per-person reception for Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers Jr., a staunch Obama supporter and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with proceeds earmarked for Conyers' political action committee.

Comedian and Minnesota Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken, who is locked in a historically close and still unsettled race with GOP incumbent Norm Coleman, leveraged his show business ties to snag Mickey Hart and Bob Weir, onetime members of the Grateful Dead, to headline a brunch today.

Tickets to the event range from $1,000 to $12,500, with proceeds earmarked for Franken's recount battle with Coleman, now in the Minnesota courts. Franken leads by 225 votes.

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azajac@tribune.com

Tom Hamburger in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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