- The Washington Times - Monday, August 4, 2008

RICHMOND | The final week of June failed to yield a dime for the state’s crowded and deteriorating highways while legislators convened in special session.

But it did generate nearly $2 million for legislators and others who hold state office or who will seek it next year, making it by far the year’s richest week for political fundraising.

In eight days after the special transportation session opened on June 23, lobbyists, corporate and special interests, party committees and individual donors wrote checks accounting for 27 percent of the $7 million given the first six months of the year combined, an Associated Press analysis of state campaign-finance reports shows.

Four of the five fattest fundraising days of the year were concurrent with the failed special session Gov. Tim Kaine called to find hundreds of millions of dollars for roads, rails and mass transit.

Friday, June 20 - three days before the session started - was the fourth-largest fundraising day of the year, according to the reports compiled into a computer database by the Virginia Public Access Project, an independent, nonprofit tracker of money in state politics.

“That just doesn’t happen in the summer, not in an off-year for state elections,” said Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Most fundraising is done in the spring and fall.”

The bounty came amid a frenzy of fundraising events held in the days and hours before the reporting period ended on June 30. With no limits on donations or campaign spending in races for Virginia offices, more than $800,000 poured in on that final day alone.

Major fundraising events during that time ranged from a Democratic Party concert at a Richmond nightclub with a $10 admission price for students to an evening of major league baseball in Washington for a $1,000 minimum contribution to benefit a Democrat running for attorney general.

There were even more private gatherings, dinners and the impromptu contact between legislators and the institutional givers who wield enormous influence and perennially underwrite most of the cost of campaigns in the state.

The totals do not include the spoils of July fundraising events held before the special session adjourned in futility in the wee morning hours of July 10. Among them was a July 7-9 gala at the luxurious Homestead Resort, where it cost $2,250 to $12,500 for face time with Democratic members of the House or Senate.

It’s illegal for lawmakers, the governor, the attorney general or the lieutenant governor to solicit or accept campaign contributions during regular legislative sessions each winter. No such law applies to special sessions.

Though legal, such largess erodes public trust at a time when legislators are deciding whether to raise taxes and fees and levy tolls on roads to pay for transportation improvements, said Josh Zaharoff, assistant director of campaign-finance reform efforts at Common Cause, a government-watchdog group.

“It draws into question in the public’s mind who these folks are representing and who they are working for,” Mr. Zaharoff said.

Having the House and Senate open for business while candidates for top offices next year desperately sought to fatten their balance sheets created a rare and irresistible fundraising environment. Monied interests had their checkbooks ready.

Real estate and construction companies and trade groups were among the most keenly affected by the transportation session, and they gave almost $360,000. That’s nearly one-fifth of the $1.9 million that changed hands in June after the special session opened.

The dominant element of that sector, property developers, pushed hard (and unsuccessfully) for substantial new funding to alleviate chronic highway gridlock in fast-growing Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. Developers gave more than $217,000.

The technology and communications industry, a major element of Northern Virginia’s economy, gave more than $322,000, or about 17 percent of all the late-June giving.

The finance and insurance industry accounted for $207,000, or 11 percent of the giving over those eight days.

Among recipients, three of the top five are candidates for governor next year. Republican Robert F. McDonnell, now the attorney general, and Delegate Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, each accounted for about one-fourth of the receipts after June 23.

Mr. McDonnell held four fundraisers in the final five days of June, one of which featured former Republican presidential contender Fred Thompson. Mr. McDonnell, who is unopposed for the Republican nomination, netted about $482,000.

“It’s not uncommon to have a push at the end of a final reporting deadline. They provide a sense of urgency,” said Phil Cox, a Republican consultant and adviser to Mr. McDonnell’s campaign.

“If you went back and looked at the Bob McDonnell fundraising pattern starting in, say, 2003, when he was getting ready to run for attorney general, you’d find the same pattern,” Mr. Cox said.

Mr. Moran took in $472,000 during that time. His rival for the Democratic nomination next spring, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds of Bath County, raised $158,000. That ranked Mr. Deeds fourth overall behind Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling’s nearly $209,000 raised for his re-election bid.

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