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Special interests swarm DNC agendas

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DENVER | From a $5,000 "kick-off the convention" golf outing to VIP credentials being handed out for $1 million "Presidential Sponsors," corporate and special interest money is flowing into Denver this week right along with the politicians.

The events range from luncheons for delegates hosted by AT&T to private suites at Invesco Field for big donors to the Denver committee that's hosting the convention. The convention also is seen as a big fundraising opportunity for Sen. Barack Obama, the first major candidate to opt out of public financing for the general election. Aides declined to discuss the campaign's fundraising strategy this week.

Events taking place this week include a welcoming party hosted by prominent lobbying firm Brownstein, Farber Hyatt, Schreck LLP at the Denver Art Museum, which has been one of the firm's lobbying client. AT&T is sponsoring a reception at a nearby banquet hall for the Blue Dog Democratic Leadership Council. And there's also a golf outing on behalf of Rep. Joe Baca of California in nearby Commerce City, Colo.

Federal law limits corporate donations to political parties, but the rules don't apply to corporate donations to the nonprofit committees hosting the parties' conventions. Ethics experts said the Denver money events afford well-heeled special interests an opportunity to mingle privately with political leaders.

"These events are created as a way for high level politicians to rub shoulders with lobbyists and others with an interest in what happens once they are elected," said Nancy Watzman, director of the Sunlight Foundation's "Party Time" project, which tracks political spending at the conventions.

According to the nonprofit Campaign Finance Institute, corporate donors who pay more than $1 million to the Denver host committee get invitations to private events with members of Congress and members of the Denver 2008 convention committee, VIP access and credentials for convention sessions and invitations to other events.

Between the two conventions combined, private money totaling more than $112 million will pay for conventions costs, much of it from corporations and trade unions lobbying Congress, according to the group.

Chris Lopez, a spokesman for the 2008 Denver Host Committee, said the committee operates as a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization responsible for supporting the convention by providing hospitality and volunteer support.

"Certainly, we have been operating under all the laws and bylaws," he said.

Mr. Lopez said the committee has raised the $40.6 million it was supposed to raise for the event.

Many corporate sponsors are donating to both parties' conventions.

Like dozens of other corporate sponsors, Medtronic, a publicly traded medical supply company, has a big interest in policymakers and elected officials, paying more than $1 million to lobbyists so far this year alone.

"It's an opportunity to create some awareness," said Chuck Grothaus, a Medtronic spokesman.

Mr. Grothaus said this is the first year that Medtronic has donated to the convention and that it largely did so because it's based in Minnesota to support the host committee in its home state.

"In an effort to maintain our bipartisan interest, we just felt it was necessary to be involved" in Denver, too, he said.

John Parker, spokesman for UnitedHealth Group, also based in Minnesota, said the company decided to sponsor the host committees in Denver and Minneapolis because "it's a unique opportunity for the cities." He said politics played no part in the decision.

Fraser Engerman, a spokesman for State Farm Insurance Cos., a sponsor for both conventions, said the insurer doesn't make political contributions or endorse candidates but "we do encourage political education and civic engagement."

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin is a sponsor for both the Democratic and Republican conventions. So far in 2008, the company has spent more than $8 million lobbying Washington policymakers.

"Lockheed Martin strongly supports our nation's political process and candidates that support in general national defense, homeland security, high technology and educational initiatives," said Lockheed spokesman Jeffery Adams.

Mr. Adams noted Lockheed is a "significant employer" in Minnesota and Colorado, where the conventions are being held.

The money flowing into Denver is also expected to give a boost to the local economy. The host committee has said the convention will bring 35,000 visitors into the city, including 15,000 members of the media, while injecting $160 million into the local economy.

Even VCG Holdings Corp., a publicly traded adult entertainment club operator, told investors earlier this month that the company expects a business boost from two of its five Denver clubs near the city's convention center. "We are excited about our prospects for the 2008 second half, especially the benefits from the Democratic National Convention," VCG chief executive Troy Lowrie said in a press release.

The company also owns a club in Minneapolis and is expects both clubs to improve it bottom line.

Karen Goff contributed to this report.

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