Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, abruptly canceled a campaign fundraising lunch scheduled for Wednesday after the Washington lobbyist helping to organize the event suggested in an invitation that the committee's work would be served as the "first course."
Mrs. Feinstein, California Democrat, bowed Monday to concerns that the fundraising solicitation could be misinterpreted. The Senate panel she chairs has long prided itself on staying above the political fray because of the sensitive nature of its work.
"It was obvious that this would be subject to misinterpretation by some, and it was canceled to avoid any misinterpretation," said Gil Duran, a spokesman for the senator. "No contributions were received, so there is nothing to return."
Washington lobbyist Heather Podesta mentioned the intelligence committee in an e-mail invitation attached to a formal notice of the event, saying that the lunch at the upscale Charlie Palmer steakhouse in Washington would begin at noon. In the e-mail, she said donors who gave between $1,000 and $2,500 could order up "the Select Committee on Intelligence for the first course."
With a check "payable to Feinstein for Senate," the e-mail said other courses include "your choice of Appropriations, Judiciary or Rules committees," other panels on which she serves. The invitation also suggested that the recipients forward it to "others that might be interested in attending or contributing."
Mr. Duran said Mrs. Feinstein had not seen the e-mail invitation mentioning the committees until it was published in the Roll Call newspaper on Monday morning.
The now-canceled fundraiser was scheduled to take place despite President Obama's campaign promise that the days of lobbyists setting the agenda in the nation's capital are over. He had called for a new "transparency in government."
Melanie Sloan, executive director of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), called the invitation "audacious, but legal."
"By correlating a fixed-price menu with Sen. Feinstein's committee assignments, Podesta does what most of Washington assiduously seeks to avoid -- makes clear that members of Congress are for sale," she said.
Ken Gross, a Washington lawyer who specializes in campaign-finance issues, said it is "pretty typical" to list a senator's committee assignments on a fundraising invitation.
Mr. Gross is a former head of the enforcement division in the general counsel's office at the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Mrs. Podesta, who heads a Washington lobbying firm known as Heather Podesta and Partners, did not respond to a message left Monday with an assistant. The fundraiser initially was announced in an e-mail from Mrs. Podesta.
A formal invitation was attached to the e-mail and included the name of her husband, Tony, also a Washington lobbyist. Paid for by the Feinstein for Senate Committee, the attached invitation does not list any of the committees but asked potential contributors to "join" the senator for lunch.
Mrs. Podesta opened the office in January 2007 to provide "strategic advice to companies, nonprofits and individuals on how to make Washington, D.C., work for them." In the first quarter of this year, her firm has been paid $1.63 million in lobbying income, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The firm received $4.75 million in fees last year, the center said.
In March, Mr. and Mrs. Podesta hosted a dinner at their upscale Woodley Park home in Washington to raise money for Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Henry A. Waxman, chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Mr. Podesta told The Washington Times at the time that the dinner was an annual event held for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) -- the fundraising arm for House Democrats -- and for a number of members of Congress.
"We are filled," he said during a friendly conversation outside his home, adding that he and his wife had erected a tent in the back of the house because of the number of people expected to attend.
Mr. Podesta also said the politicians, lobbyists and donors were not talking business but about the food, which included braised lamb, ice cream and homemade fudge for Mrs. Pelosi, an acknowledged chocoholic.
The invitation promised a seated dinner with a celebrity chef. Donors were expected to give $5,000 as guests, $15,000 as PAC supporters and $30,400 -- the federal maximum to a committee -- to be a host.
Mrs. Podesta is a well-known lobbyist in Washington, and her client list includes powerful special interests with big financial stakes on issues pending in Congress. Mr. Podesta founded the Podesta Group, a lobbying and public-affairs firm based in Washington, in 1988.