Lob­by­ists bend Democrats’ ears on is­sues in swanky set­tings

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY JIM MCELHATTON

DEN­VER | In­side a chan­de­liered ball­room of the Ritz Carl­ton ho­tel here on Aug. 26, Rep. Henry A. Wax­man talked to a lawyer for Medtronic about an is­sue the big med­i­cal de­vice com­pany has been push­ing in Congress.

Mr. Wax­man, who is a pow­er­ful com­mit­tee chair­man, made no apolo­gies about be­ing lob­bied in so op­u­lent a set­ting. “They can do it here, or they can do it in my of­fice,” the Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat said, and, clearly, here the food was bet­ter.

The pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nat­ing con­ven­tions are the Su­per Bowls of sch­mooze for cor­po­ra­tions, la­bor unions and in­ter­est groups that have a lot at stake in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

Hun­dreds of par­ties, large and small, are be­ing hosted here so that groups with lots of money can get even more from law­mak­ers, and the tax­pay­ers they rep­re­sent. Ex­ec­u­tives also talk to law­mak­ers about im­por­tant poli­cies and reg­u­la­tions that can af­fect their bot­tom line.

Lob­by­ists and cor­po­rate ex­ec­u­tives de­scended on Den­ver last week to at­tend more than 400 par­ties, hosted by the likes of AT&T, the Dis­tilled Spir­its Coun­cil and Google. They con­versed with law­mak­ers and prom­i­nent Democrats at shrim­pand-caviar re­cep­tions in a strat­egy vet­eran in­flu­ence-mak­ers of­ten call “bend an ear now and twist an arm later.”

Nancy Watz­man, di­rec­tor of the non­profit Sun­light Foun­da­tion, said such events are trou­ble­some be­cause lob­by­ists and cor­po­ra­tions, in­clud­ing many do­nat­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands to cover con­ven­tion ex­penses, get a level of ac­cess to politi­cians that av­er­age peo­ple can­not match.

“Are they go­ing to be more likely to re­turn a call from some­body they’ve never met or some­body they’ve shared a drink with?” Ms. Watz­man asked.

The law­mak­ers ap­pear will­ing par­tic­i­pants. In a hall­way at the Ritz, Rep. Steve Is­rael, New York Demo­crat, spoke with a Bank of Amer­ica ex­ec­u­tive and handed his busi­ness cards to oth­ers go­ing to the brunch be­fore he walked into the ball­room.

Mr. Wax­man and Mr. Is­rael weren’t the only mem­bers of Congress at the event, which was hosted by the lob­by­ing law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. Other at­ten­dees in­cluded Reps. Doris Mat­sui and Adam B. Schiff of Cal­i­for­nia and Bill Foster of Illi­nois.

Akin Gump’s lob­by­ing clients in­clude dozens of com­pa­nies that would like to win law­maker sup­port, in­clud­ing Boe­ing, the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Re­search and Man­u­fac­tur­ers As­so­ci­a­tion and the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica.

One in­dus­try — coal — was spending lav­ishly, but on ad­ver­tis­ing and pro­mo­tion. The Amer­i­can Coali­tion for Clean Coal Elec­tric­ity was spending $1.7 mil­lion to spread its mantra that coal can be a “clean, cred­i­ble source to fill to­mor­row’s en­ergy needs.”

The group’s “clean coal” ad blitz in­cluded mo­bile bill­board trucks dis­patched across the city and a free bus ser­vice with coal in­dus­try com­mer­cials in­side. For Sen. Barack Obama’s ac­cep­tance speech Aug. 28, the group planned to hand out 75,000 fans with the words, “I am a Fan of Coal.”

Both Mr. Wax­man and Mr. Is­rael in­sisted there was no arm-twist­ing go­ing on.

“We were talk­ing about an is­sue where we were on op­po­site sides. They didn’t con­vince me, and I didn’t con­vince them,” Mr. Wax­man said of his con­ver­sa­tion with Medtronic’s gen­eral coun­sel, Ter­rance Carl­son.

“I couldn’t re­mem­ber a face three hours from now let alone three months from now,” Mr. Is­rael said. “Noth­ing of any sub­stance gets dis­cussed here.”

The med­i­cal sup­ply com­pany, how­ever, was happy to have the law­mak­ers’ at­ten­tion. “Hav­ing an op­por­tu­nity to meet for just a few min­utes gives us an op­por­tu­nity to dis­cuss is­sues that are im­por­tant to our in­dus­try,” Medtronic spokesman Chuck Grothaus said.

Ms. Watz­man was try­ing with lit­tle suc­cess to at­tend events and re­cep­tions hosted by cor­po­ra­tions and lob­by­ists through­out the week, but mostly she was told she’s not wel­come. She also planned to at­tended par­ties hosted by cor­po­ra­tions and lob­by­ing firms at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion in Min­neapo­lis-St. Paul this week.

The event at the Ritz was billed as a re­cep­tion to honor one of the firm’s top lawyers, for­mer Clin­ton ad­viser Ver­non Jor­dan.

Dur­ing a short speech, Mr. Jor­dan poked fun at the new ethics rules that were sup­posed to do away with lav­ish meals for law­mak­ers paid for by lob­by­ists.

“You’ll no­tice the ab­sence of forks,” Mr. Jor­dan said. “I must ad­mon­ish you not to try to eat the food with spoons.”



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