Lobbyists bend ears on issues in swanky settings

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DENVER | Inside a chandeliered ballroom of the Ritz Carlton hotel here Tuesday morning, Rep. Henry A. Waxman talked to a lawyer for Medtronic about an issue the big medical device company has been pushing in Congress.

Mr. Waxman, who is a powerful committee chairman, made no apologies about being lobbied in so opulent a setting. “They can do it here, or they can do it in my office,” the California Democrat said, and, clearly, here the food was better.

The presidential nominating conventions are the Super Bowls of schmooze for corporations, labor unions and interest groups that have a lot at stake in the nation’s capital.

Hundreds of parties, large and small, are being hosted here so that groups with lots of money can get even more from lawmakers, and the taxpayers they represent. Executives also talk to lawmakers about important policies and regulations that can affect their bottom line.

Lobbyists and corporate executives have descended on Denver this week to attend more than 400 parties, hosted by the likes of AT&T;, the Distilled Spirits Council and Google. They have been conversing with lawmakers and prominent Democrats at shrimp-and-caviar receptions in a strategy veteran influence-makers often call “bend an ear now and twist an arm later.”

Nancy Watzman, director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, said such events are troublesome because lobbyists and corporations, including many donating hundreds of thousands to cover convention expenses, get a level of access to politicians that average people cannot match.

“Are they going to be more likely to return a call from somebody they’ve never met or somebody they’ve shared a drink with?” Ms. Watzman asked.

The lawmakers appear willing participants. In a hallway at the Ritz, Rep. Steve Israel, New York Democrat, spoke with a Bank of America executive and handed his business cards to others going to the brunch before he walked into the ballroom.

Mr. Waxman and Mr. Israel weren’t the only members of Congress at the event, which was hosted by the lobbying law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Other attendees included Reps. Doris Matsui and Adam B. Schiff of California and Bill Foster of Illinois.

Akin Gump’s lobbying clients include dozens of companies that would like to win lawmaker support, including Boeing, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association and the Motion Picture Association of America.

One industry - coal - is spending lavishly, but on advertising and promotion. The American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity is spending $1.7 million to spread its mantra that coal can be a “clean, credible source to fill tomorrow’s energy needs.”

The group’s “clean coal” ad blitz includes mobile billboard trucks dispatched across the city and a free bus service with coal industry commercials inside. For Sen. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech Thursday, the group plans to hand out 75,000 fans with the words, “I am a Fan of Coal.”

Both Mr. Waxman and Mr. Israel insisted there was no arm-twisting going on Tuesday.

“We were talking about an issue where we were on opposite sides. They didn’t convince me, and I didn’t convince them,” Mr. Waxman said of his conversation with Medtronic’s general counsel, Terrance Carlson.

“I couldn’t remember a face three hours from now let alone three months from now,” Mr. Israel said. “Nothing of any substance gets discussed here.”

The medical supply company, however, was happy to have the lawmakers’ attention. “Having an opportunity to meet for just a few minutes gives us an opportunity to discuss issues that are important to our industry,” Medtronic spokesman Chuck Grothaus said.

Ms. Watzman has been trying with little success to attend events and receptions hosted by corporations and lobbyists throughout the week, but mostly she’s been told she’s not welcome. She’s also planning to attended parties hosted by corporations and lobbying firms at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul next week.

The event at the Ritz was billed as a reception to honor one of the firm’s top lawyers, former Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan.

During a short speech, Mr. Jordan poked fun at the new ethics rules that were supposed to do away with lavish meals for lawmakers paid for by lobbyists.

“You’ll notice the absence of forks,” Mr. Jordan said. “I must admonish you not to try to eat the food with spoons.”

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