Ethics down side to big-donor convention parties?

Special interests can give unlimited sums to national party conventions through convention host committees.

By , Staff writer

Denver – It's party time in Denver, where hundreds of festivities around the first Democratic National Convention here in a century are just getting under way.

Last night it was "A Celebration with Altitude" at Elitch Gardens, a 62-acre downtown theme park that closed to the public for a private party for some 15,000 journalists, 6,000 DNC delegates, and other invited guests, who dined on cotton candy and crunchy finger foods, including Rocky Mountain oysters. (If you’re not familiar with the provenance of that last item, you should have asked. I didn't.)

Journalists covering the 2008 Democratic National Convention were also invited to an opening party at Elitch Gardens, then located at a different site in Denver. Eleven of the 31 "thrill rides" at the current park date from that era. Saturday night's event ended with a five-site fireworks display that produced erratic driving on nearby roadways not unlike the classic bumper car rides.

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Here's the question: Did the sponsors of that event – The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, plus a billboard of corporations – buy themselves favorable coverage in The Christian Science Monitor? Certainly not after the "oysters."

But the confluence of private money and politics poses perennial issues (the latest wave of ethics reform on Capitol Hill notwithstanding) for journalists, as well as for the members of Congress and would-be presidents the media cover.

In 1908, Democrats meeting in Denver nominated populist William Jennings Bryan, the most powerful orator of his day. He had first electrified Democrats in 1896 at the Democratic convention in Chicago with his "Cross of Gold" speech. In Denver, he campaigned on the slogan: "Shall the People Rule."

In Denver this week, Democrats are poised to nominate Barack Obama, no slouch as an orator himself. He electrified the 2004 Democratic convention in Boston with his "Audacity of Hope" speech, setting up a presidential run. In Denver, he has campaigning for openness and change, including a pledge to accept no Washington lobbyist money for his campaign.

But what about lobbyist money at the party conventions? Special-interest groups can donate unlimited sums to national party conventions because convention host committees, unlike political campaigns, don’t count as "political entities" under current rules.

Here's another loophole: Lavish corporate receptions "honoring" a member of Congress, typically a committee chairman with oversight of those same corporate interests, were a fixture at national conventions of both parties in the 1990s. These are now disallowed. But new rules still permit lobbyists to throw a party for groups of lawmakers. That's why Sunday night's party for conservative Blue Dog Democrats, sponsored by AT&T and Genworth, a financial services group, falls within the rules.

But are such events within the spirit of those ethics rules? That's what public-interest groups such as the Sunlight Foundation aim to find out by crashing corporate parties this week and at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul next week. (For a growing list of parties at political conventions, see Sunlightfoundation.com.)

The perks for big donors, meanwhile, are flowing freely in Denver, as they are likewise expected to do at the Republican Convention. The Obama campaign characterizes the choice of Invesco Field to be the site for the candidate's acceptance speech as a move toward openness. But million-dollar donors to the host committee get to watch the speech from Invesco’s luxury suites – a different message altogether.

Despite the high tone of William Jennings Bryan's populist campaign in 1908, Denver was awash in money and privilege, even then. The average hotel rate in Denver jumped from $1 to $20 for that Democratic convention, but VIP suites went as high as $200. That's $465 and $4,650, respectively, in today's terms, adjusting for inflation.

It puts the $600 plus tax that the Monitor was quoted for a room near the Pepsi Convention Center this week in perspective.

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