- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama may want to keep “special interests” out of the White House, but he can’t keep them out of Washington for his inauguration.

Interest groups - including financial service companies, health care providers, American Indians, poker players, music studios and environmentalists - will host fancy events along Pennsylvania Avenue and elsewhere in the District the entire week before Mr. Obama’s swearing-in.

The party hosts are using the huge draw of the inauguration to raise their profile in the nation’s capital and are spending big bucks to build relationships with the lawmakers and government officials who have the power to give them what they want.

“It’s a way to highlight our issues,” said Doug Durante, executive director of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition and co-chairman of the Environmental and Clean Energy Inaugural Ball.

Mr. Durante said that incoming officials from the Energy and Interior departments and the Environmental Protection Agency will be attending his event at Georgetown’s waterfront Sequoia restaurant. Also on the A-list, he said, are ecology-friendly celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.

Some are planning more low-key affairs that reflect the hard economic times.

“Our event is going to be a modest one,” said David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association, whose offices are on Pennsylvania Avenue along the route of the inaugural parade. “We have a wonderful view, and several of our employees and guests have been invited to observe.”

“It’s going to be a little more simple elegance and lower key,” Scott Talbott, chief lobbyist at the Financial Services Roundtable, said about his group’s inaugural parade reception. Several members of Congress are expected to attend.

The Presidential Inaugural Committee is sponsoring 10 balls on the night of Jan. 20. Obama transition team officials have said the president-elect has imposed “unprecedented limitations” on fundraising for his inaugural events by refusing to take money from corporations, lobbyists, foreigners or labor unions.

Still, corporate sponsors have clamored to finance unofficial parties that the Obamas might attend, including functions by the Illinois State Society and the Hawaii State Society, representing two states close to Mr. Obama’s heart.

Donors to the Illinois State Society event include the PMA Group and Holland & Knight - both lobbying firms - as well as major corporations such as United Airlines, Motorola, Google and Microsoft.

Ethics analysts say the state-society-sponsored balls and other unofficial events give narrow interest groups a way to pay for and participate in inaugural week festivities, despite rules keeping their money out of the official events.

“These private groups are going to continue to try to have influence,” said Nancy Watzman, director of the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time project, a nonpartisan effort that tracks political fundraisers.

With the House, Senate and White House under Democratic control, some groups are using the parties to highlight their Democratic credentials.

BGR Holding, a public relations and lobbying firm that turned from all-Republican to bipartisan, is going so far as to host a black-tie Blue Ball on Inauguration Day. Blue is the color pollsters and pundits have associated with the Democratic Party.

“We thought this would be a great way to market the fact that BGR is bipartisan and reach out to the Democratic side of Washington,” said David DiMartino, a vice president of BGR Public Relations. “There are Democrats here now.”

Blue might be the most popular color on Inauguration Day, but green comes in a close second.

Among the environmentally friendly parties planned is the Green Inaugural Ball on Jan. 17 at the spacious Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium. Former Vice President Al Gore is honorary chairman of the event.

An Inaugural Peace Ball and a Health Care for All Blue Diamond Ball are planned as well.

“It’s a way of making sure that your issues are dealt with in the next two or four years,” said Brian Hennessey of the nonprofit Vineeta Foundation, which is co-organizing the Blue Diamond event that will support Mr. Obama’s vision of universal health care.

These parties are being structured so that lawmakers can attend without breaking new rules that restrict their socializing with lobbyists. Many of the invitations include a menu of “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” for example, because lawmakers cannot accept full meals from lobbyists under the rules.

The Poker Players Alliance is hosting a private, invitation-only event to honor “our new poker player in chief” starting at 11 p.m. on Inauguration Day at a well-known local cigar bar. The fine print of the invitation, sent to some lawmakers, notes that the event “conforms with the congressional ethics committee rules.”

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