State issues, money follow delegates to conventions

AT&T, Emergent BioSolutions among Md. companies supporting delegations.

They travel hundreds of miles to attend their parties' national political conventions, but the delegates gathering in Ohio and Pennsylvania this month are never far from home-state politics — or the companies that fund them.

From a major pharmaceutical firm with operations in Baltimore to the owner of Potomac Edison in Western Maryland, state interests have ponied up tens of thousands of dollars to ensure Republicans and Democrats have a good time as they nominate their presidential candidates.

The money cannot be used to support campaigns, so most of it is spent on receptions, food and transportation at the conventions. But watchdog groups have raised concerns about the practice, which observers say has become more prevalent this year as corporate donors — skittish about Republican nominee Donald J. Trump — have sought new and less overt ways to give money and gain influence.

"Many business interests do not want their corporate logo associated with Trump, yet they still very much want to have a lobbying presence at the conventions," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the Public Citizen advocacy group.

"The way to help foot the bill for the conventions and thus buy access to lawmakers and party leaders, all the while avoiding the public limelight, is to sponsor a state delegation or two to the conventions."

As Maryland Republicans meet each morning here for breakfast, they are greeted with a sign displaying the logos and names of donors, such as AT&T and FirstEnergy, owner of Potomac Edison, which made contributions to the party.

A draft schedule of events for state Democrats meeting in Philadelphia next week obtained by The Baltimore Sun shows breakfasts sponsored by the AFL-CIO, the Maryland-based law firm Rifkin, Weiner, Livingston, and the Gaithersburg-based pharmaceutical firm Emergent BioSolutions.

Republican officials estimated the state party has raised about $100,000 at the convention, a large portion of which came directly from delegates, alternates and guests in the form of a $400 per-person fee. Maryland Democratic officials, who have a deeper bench of donors and will send more delegates to Philadelphia, declined to say how much they had raised.

Some of the companies involved have business with state government in Annapolis. FirstEnergy, for instance, is regulated by the Public Service Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor. The Akron, Ohio-based company is sponsoring the Republican and Democratic delegations from Maryland this year.

"As the host electric utility of the RNC, FirstEnergy also took the opportunity to welcome and support the delegations from states where we're privileged to serve customers, like Maryland," spokesman Doug Colafella said in a statement.

Colafella declined to say how much his company contributed. Depending on how the donations are reported, details might not be available until around the inauguration in January.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of government watchdog group Common Cause Maryland, said her group is "constantly concerned" about the lack of transparency around the interactions at political conventions and out-of-state industry-sponsored gatherings where lobbying disclosure rules do not apply.

"Our state lobby laws do not require disclosure by either the corporation's lobbyist or the legislators of who attended, what the cost was or what issues were discussed," Bevan-Dangel said. "It allows lobbyists — or their employers — significant access to public officials out of the public eye."

Party officials noted that some companies listed as sponsors in Cleveland had not actually contributed specifically for the convention, but rather made a contribution to the party that was large enough that it qualified them to have their names emblazoned on signs at events as a courtesy.

Other companies, such as AT&T, gave specifically to help defray costs for the convention delegations — of both parties.

"Our expertise is communications, and we invest and prepare our network extensively for events like these," spokesman Jim Kimberly said. "At the same time, we also recognize the important role both conventions play in the functioning of our democracy, and are proud to support them on an impartial basis."

Emergent BioSolutions, which has a manufacturing plant in East Baltimore and more than 400 employees statewide, has a presence — including lobbyists — at both conventions. But only state Democrats have listed the firm as a sponsor.

"We work closely with the Maryland delegation on both sides of the aisle to educate them about the importance of medical countermeasures to protect against public-health threats," spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said. "Both conventions serve as a great opportunity to continue this dialogue."

Several national brands that previously gave to convention organizers, including UPS and Ford, have pulled out of the glitzy political shows this year, which many have viewed as a reaction to Trump's candidacy. The companies have not explicitly offered that explanation, and several backed out of both conventions.

Republican organizers were about $6 million short of their $64 million fundraising target days before the event began Monday.

Maryland Republican Party executive director Joe Cluster said some potential state sponsors pulled the plug earlier this year, but said there may have been reasons for those decisions that had little to do with the nominee.

"There were a number of potential donors that, in the end, didn't come through," Cluster said. "Whether it's the nominee or whether it's because our governor is not participating in the convention this year, I don't know."

Hogan, one of two GOP governors not supporting Trump, decided against attending the convention, depriving the delegation of some star power. Former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is attending. His wife, Kendel, is an at-large delegate.

Democrats have had their own problems with national fundraising after the Internal Revenue Service denied organizers' request for tax-exempt status, which would have allowed donors to write off their contributions. Officials told the Philadelphia Inquirer this month that the convention was $3 million under its target.

State Democratic officials declined to discuss the party's sponsors or offer a response to the criticism posed by watchdogs.

The party's executive director, Charles "Chuck" R. Conner III, emailed a statement saying Democratic donors were "excited to chip in."

john.fritze@baltsun.com

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