- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. | Got $5 million burning a hole in your pocket? At the Republican National Convention, that tidy sum will get you VIP access and luxury-level seats, entree to exclusive parties and possibly dinner or a round of golf with the party’s leaders.

A $250,000 donation to the Republican Governors Association’s convention package buys a 10-pack of tickets to parties hosted by RGA leaders, a concert by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and lunch with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, among other perks.

In what outside watchdog groups call the largest loophole in today’s campaign-finance laws, the host committees behind the national conventions can accept unlimited contributions, prompting them to offer big perks in exchange for cash.

“These companies are not contributing only because they’re from the host state. They have many interests … including trying to influence federal policy or prevent another party from retaliating in the form of legislation,” said Steve Weissman, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute (CFI), a nonpartisan group.

Contributions to most political groups are capped, but the convention host committees have 501(c)(3) charity status on the theory that the funds they receive go toward showing off the host city and not to advancing the partisan interests of the convention.

The Minneapolis St. Paul 2008 Host Committee had raised $39 million as of July and is hoping to have $58 million in the bank for the gathering.

The host committees aren’t required to disclose their list of donors until after the event. The donors identified by the St. Paul committee so far are corporations, about 40 percent of which are based in Minnesota.

Combined, the publicly acknowledged donors have spent $1 billion on federal lobbying in the past three years, suggesting that a host-committee donation is just another path to trying to influence lawmakers, Mr. Weissman said.

For example, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), a major health care lobbying group, has spent nearly $58 million on federal lobbying since 2005, according to CFI. The group also has donated to the Minneapolis St. Paul 2008 Host Committee.

In exchange, the companies get a chance to educate lawmakers and delegates on their issues.

The list of “donor benefits” released by the host committee includes such enticements as VIP access and luxury seats in the convention hall. The largest donors also get exclusive tickets to parties, the first shot at primo Twin Cities venues for private events and a chance to be an “official sponsor” at the convention.

Initial versions of the donor benefits sheets, obtained by CFI, reveal that donors of $5 million or more initially were offered a private dinner and round of golf with Republican leadership and a private reception with Republican Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other local officials.

Those benefits were not listed on the sheet distributed to the press. Spokeswoman Teresa McFarland said that the official host committee events are still being finalized and that benefits are customized based on donors’ requests.

In fact, the donor packet doesn’t list much difference in the perks from donations of $5 million, $2.5 million and $1 million. Donors with a $5 million check do get an opportunity to be listed as an “official provider” to the host committee.

“With executives, to get this money, you have to also tell them you’re going to tie them into the federal power structure,” Mr. Weissman said.

In an effort to prove their company’s bipartisanship, several Minnesota companies making donations this year sent checks to the host committee for the Democratic convention in Denver as well.

“With the convention right next door, we were a natural place for the host committee to ask for help. We were proud to help, and we also have stores in Colorado,” said spokeswoman Amy Reilly of the Minneapolis-based retailer Target Corp. “We want to make sure we were doing both.”

“We chose to be corporate sponsors to both because of the company’s bipartisan interest in bringing health care issues to the forefront,” said Chuck Grothaus, spokesman for Medtronic Inc., a medical technology company that also has headquarters in Minneapolis.

Many of the companies, especially those based in Minnesota, say they made their donations because they wanted the country to see the best side of the Twin Cities.

“As a proud and longtime citizen of the St. Paul community, with our company headquarters in St. Paul for more than 150 years, we were pleased to support the bipartisan effort to attract both the Democratic and Republican national nominating conventions to the Twin Cities,” said Travelers Cos. Inc. spokeswoman Jennifer Bagdade.

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