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Special-interest money finds seats at the table

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama says he does not want to use special-interest money to pay for inaugural events, but the lobbyists are coming anyway. The calendar is chock full of parties, receptions, brunches, breakfasts, lunches, dinners and prayer services, many and perhaps most designed to bring those who need influence into contact with those who wield it.

A running and incomplete tally of official and unofficial inaugural events kept by a Washington lobbyist runs to 41 pages and at least 206 events crammed into the week that began Jan. 14.

Obama's ban on money directly from lobbyists, corporations, political action committees and labor unions affects only official inaugural events overseen by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a small subset of all the back-slapping and rug-cutting occurring in the capital. And it allows individuals who may be associated with those causes to donate up to $50,000, or "bundle" as much as $300,000.

More than three-quarters of the $35 million donated by last week toward the target of $45 million was raised by bundlers, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan consumer group Public Citizen.

Among them are executives from at least half a dozen embattled Wall Street firms, including Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and the bankrupt Lehman Brothers, the analysis showed.

Obama should be lauded for curbing special-interest money and being more open about disclosing who is giving, but "what they ought to do is push for public funding to make sure a small group of people doesn't get special access," said David Arkush, of Public Citizen.

"It's got to be hard to ignore people who give you $50,000."

Donors of at least $10,000 receive admission to one of three inauguration-eve dinners which the Obamas and Bidens are expected to attend.

The larger the donation, the closer the seating to the head table, according to one person arranging tickets for large donors.

Committee spokeswoman Linda Douglass said the donations are from personal bank accounts and not corporate coffers.

Restrictions Obama has placed on fundraising are "the greatest in recent inaugural history, and our transparency is unprecedented," Douglass said.

While limiting the amount of easily identifiable special-interest money may allow Obama to score public relations points, it may also have the perverse effect of making inaugural season lobbying and schmoozing more efficient, according to Kent Cooper, who runs Capitol Hill Access, a Web site that tracks Washington's political and lobbying networks.

In donating to an inaugural fund, "the impression you're making is totally diluted," Cooper said.

In previous inaugurations, donors "were hit up. They had to give," Cooper said. "My guess is they all like this [ban] because they can decide how to spend their own money. They can do smaller, more targeted events. They can decide which staff member is going to try to talk to so-and-so."

To be sure, many of the shindigs involve trade groups, lobbyists and law firms entertaining their own members, customers and clients in town for the swearing-in.

But an inauguration inevitably brings the winning party's elite donors to town and a slew of big-ticket, limited-access events give them numerous opportunities to rub elbows with congressional and executive branch decision-makers.

For example, the Recording Industry Association of America is throwing a star-studded ball headlined by Barbadian singer Rihanna and rapper Ludacris, among others, and co-hosted by Courtney Cox and Rosanna Arquette, at the Ibiza nightclub on Tuesday night.

The $2,500-per ticket, invitation-only event is a benefit for the "Feeding America" domestic hunger relief charity, but it promises to bring together many members of Congress and high-level administration appointees, along with association members, at least some of whom have concerns about music piracy, Internet regulation and other issues overseen or influenced by the federal government.

Eighteen sponsors ponied up between $25,000 and $200,000 to underwrite the event.

They include Bank of America, which last week closed a deal to receive a fresh infusion of $20 billion in government bail-out funding.

The RIAA ball is slated to end at 2 a.m., but an inauguration after-party sponsored by a group of consultants and lobbyists runs until 4 a.m. at a bar on Washington's trendy U Street.

One of the co-sponsors, Democratic lobbyist Lyndon Boozer, said there's little lobbying benefit in most inaugural bashes.

"The value in it is social and celebratory," said Boozer.

"For those of us who are excited about winning back the White House, we're celebrating."

Among the glitzier gatherings is the Creative Coalition's ball at the Harmon Center for the Performing Arts, which features Susan Sarandon, Spike Lee and Ann Hathaway among dozens of other celebrities, along with 97 mostly Democratic congressional co-sponsors.

Admission to the sold-out event, sponsored by Pepsi, started at $10,000 for two and ranges up to $100,000 for 50 VIP admissions and 20 tickets to a pre-ball dinner, with proceeds going to the coalition's arts advocacy programs.

Not all events are high-profile. Some seek to avoid publicity. Tomorrow night, for example, there's an invitation-only reception for new members of Congress at the ritzy Charlie Palmer steakhouse.

Who's paying for it?

"My sponsors have asked me to keep them out of the press," said event planner Ryan Costello.

According to the www.welcomenewmembers.com Web site, sponsors include Wal-Mart, Kraft, Heineken, the Food Marketing Institute and several other businesses and trade groups.

Although networking would seem to be the primary political benefit of all the partying, at least a few events are geared toward raising campaign money.

Tomorrow afternoon, lawyers and lobbyists affiliated with the Greenberg Traurig law firm are hosting a $1,000-per-person reception for Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, a staunch Obama supporter and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, with proceeds earmarked for Conyers' political action committee.

Comedian and Minnesota Democratic Senate candidate Al Franken, who is locked in an historically close and still unsettled race with GOP incumbent Norm Coleman, leveraged his show business ties to snag Mickey Hart and Bob Weir, onetime members of the Grateful Dead, to headline a Sunday brunch.

Tickets to the event range from $1,000 to $12,500, with proceeds earmarked for Franken's recount battle with Coleman, now in the Minnesota courts.

Franken leads by 225 votes.

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