As Boeing lobbied against a rival aerospace company to win a $35 billion government contract, its activities included a curious donation: $10,000 to the Johnstown, Pa., Symphony Orchestra.
The orchestra was a favorite cause of Rep. John Murtha, the late Pennsylvania Democrat who, as a gatekeeper for the Defense Department's budget, held a lot of influence over Pentagon contracting.
Boeing ultimately won the contract to build a new military refueling tanker, after the company and its competitor donated to organizations held in favor by key Pentagon generals and lawmakers, such as Murtha.
The payments were disclosed under a 2007 law that opened a window into more than $50 million in previously hidden spending by lobbyists and their clients, according to a compilation by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. Most money spent in 2009 and 2010 went to nonprofit groups that were connected to government officials or honored them.
For companies seeking influence, "it's a win-win," said Wright Andrews, a lobbyist and board member of the American League of Lobbyists. "Give to charities and get a tax deduction."
"There's no question it gives you better access. Access is power. It goes to having a direct impact on whether you get support or not," Mr. Andrews said.
Boeing, while vying for the tanker deal, which was among the largest government contracts, donated to groups that honored, among others, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat; Rep. Norm Dicks, Washington Democrat, then chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense; Marine Gen. James N. Mattis, currently head of the U.S. Central Command; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, the incoming CIA director.
"The Boeing Co. takes seriously its role as corporate citizen supporting charitable organizations in all locations where we have a considerable presence, including Washington, D.C." said Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the Chicago-based company. "We have a commitment to support charities that attempt to make a difference in areas that Boeing has identified as priorities."
According to the Sunlight Foundation compilation, $36.3 million of the $50 million went to organizations composed of lawmakers, affiliated with them or that honored them. Another $11 million went to organizations that honored or were connected with executive branch officials.
"By giving millions to nonprofits and charities that lawmakers have a connection to, lobbyists and special interests have a very discreet way of currying favor with the members of Congress they're trying to influence, one that the public is rarely aware of," said Bill Allison, editorial director of the foundation. "How much more money is contributed to these nonprofits by clients of lobbyists or others with an interest in federal policy is unclear, since only lobbyists have to disclose these contributions."