Bill Clinton, Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren will all be at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte next month.
So will Walmart, Discover Financial and CSX.
While delegates conduct the Democratic Party’s business in Time Warner Cable Arena, those and other sponsors with a business or political agenda will put on hundreds of private events, from raucous parties to staid policy seminars.
To help them get the most out of it – and stay on the right side of ethics rules – a small but growing number of Washington-based political consultants and attorneys have turned their attention to Charlotte.
“Everybody has a mission to promote their message or their cause at the convention,” said LeeAnn Petersen, a political consultant at Conventions 2012, which is advising companies on how to get their message out, both in Charlotte and in Tampa, Fla., site of the GOP convention.
Its clients for the DNC include consumer product mainstays like General Mills and Johnson & Johnson, as well as Bacardi & Co., Ltd, the Home Shopping Network, and the NBA, according a list on the firm’s website.
Companies like these will be sponsoring events, promoting products and rubbing elbows with lawmakers when they come to Charlotte in the first week of September.
The Democratic Party has decided not to accept corporate money to put on the convention itself, but some government watchdog groups say the corporate world will have outsize influence anyway. Private events drawing prominent guests outside Time Warner Cable Arena give companies the chance to influence policy, build goodwill in Washington or simply draw attention to their new products.
“They’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. “They’re doing it because they’re trying to improve their standing in Washington.”
Motorola Solutions Inc. is another of Petersen’s clients, and the company will be providing “mission-critical” technology during the DNC. The company wants to use that to help get exposure for some of its new products, like a secure tablet and two-way radio, Petersen said.
Trade associations, which represent groups of companies, don’t have a product to promote. They’ll instead focus on painting their industries in a positive light for the political leaders gathered there.
The Organization for International Investment, which represents foreign companies with U.S. operations, for example, wants lawmakers to know they’re creating jobs. They’ll host a reception at the Aloft Hotel at the EpiCentre to do that. The consulting firm’s job is to invite lawmakers, line up corporate sponsors, arrange transportation and secure housing.
“The convention provides a tremendous opportunity to profile an organization, their message, to party leaders who are all focused in one place,” said Kimberly Scott, a consultant at ConklinScott in Washington. Scott is also behind DemList, a site seeking to compile as many DNC events as possible and is orchestrating a policy forum for the American Sustainable Business Council.
Meals or appetizers?
These consultants and attorneys have taken on added importance in recent years as state and federal ethics laws have become tighter.
Free-for-all parties have given way to more coffees, lunches and policy forums.
Evening receptions, too, are more carefully scripted. One notable ethics rule prohibits congressmen or staffers from accepting meals. Appetizers, though, are OK.
“You could potentially eat as many sliders as you want at a reception, but if you eat one full-size hamburger you’re in trouble,” said William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper, a Washington law firm advising clients on DNC plans. “It’s not an enormous legal practice, but it’s certainly a growing one.”
What’s legal for one state’s delegation could run afoul of another state’s rules. North Carolina legislators and staffers, for example, can’t knowingly accept food or beverages from a lobbying organization, though exceptions exist. And White House officials signed an ethics pledge to avoid events hosted by companies that employ lobbyists.
That makes informative events, as distinct from parties, more common, since political leaders can more easily attend events dealing with issues in their legislative wheelhouse while still giving companies the chance to make their case.
“These kind of policy forums are actually more substantive and more concentrated for those that are trying to get their message out to a very important and captive audience,” Scott said.
A number of these private events will be open to the public, and others are at least publicly advertised. But if they’re not directly related to a political campaign, they often do not have to be disclosed – a fact troubling to some government accountability organizations.
The nonprofit Sunlight Foundation is teaming up with watchdog Public Citizen to attend some of these events to make sure they indeed do follow the ethics rules.
“There should be better disclosure of these events,” said Allison, of the Sunlight Foundation. “Because let’s face it, they’re there to lobby.”
Dunn: 704-358-5235 Twitter: @andrew_dunn
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