Big perks still go to big donors

When Barack Obama gives his acceptance speech before 70,000 people at Invesco Field in Denver on Thursday, most supporters will be sitting under the open night sky. But a group of lobbyists and corporate executives will watch the event from plush skyboxes, with catered food and a flowing bar, and a price tag of up to $1 million.

And Obama's biggest fundraisers will be staying at the tony Ritz-Carlton. They will be treated to an array of cocktail parties and receptions in their honor, including one Monday evening with party chairman Howard Dean, a reception with Joe Biden on Wednesday night and a celebration with Obama after his acceptance speech in a club-level lounge at Invesco Field.

The rewarding of big-money donors at the conventions strikes some discordant notes for Obama – and for Sen. John McCain, too – as each has sharply criticized the influence of money in politics. While Obama has attacked those who “have turned our government into a game only they can afford to play,” the corporate and other special-interest money will be as pervasive as ever at this year's Democratic convention.

Even a landmark federal ethics measure passed last year to rein in the gifts that members of Congress can receive will barely put a dent in the partying at the conventions. Creative loopholes have emerged to evade many of the tougher restrictions.

In fact, millions of dollars are being spent on entertainment to wine and dine specific members of Congress, including Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, and Sen. Richard Durbin, also of Illinois. In Denver alone, the host committee estimates there will be 1,200 parties.

Corporations, trade unions and lobbying firms, along with well-heeled individuals, have already donated $112 million to the Denver and Minneapolis-St. Paul host committees to help pay for the conventions. Unlike campaign contributions, which are capped in the thousand-dollar range, donations to the political conventions can be – and have been – written in seven-figure amounts.

On the Republican side, McCain, in an interview last week with Politico, continued his attack on lobbyists, calling them “birds of prey” who seek “their share of the spoils.” He also vowed to enforce a ban on lobbying for members of his administration.

But major McCain and Republican National Committee donors, many of them lobbyists, are getting a special Platinum Package, which provides hotel rooms at the Grand Hotel or the Westin in Minneapolis, exclusive dinners and cocktail receptions, as well as a Tuesday night party featuring the comedian Dennis Miller. The group, referred to as McCain Friends and Family, has its own schedule of events, part of what campaigns call “donor maintenance.”

In an example of how corporations are getting around ethics rules designed to limit events honoring lawmakers, AT&T and Genworth are among the sponsors of Blue Night in Denver, an event today honoring the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of fiscally conservative Democratic House members. Corporations and other donors are being solicited to buy “sponsorship packages” for events costing $25,000 to $50,000 and honoring the New Democrat Coalition, a group of moderate Democrats.

Donors to the New Democrat event will get VIP tickets and access to the exclusive area, with amenities, for a party at Union Station and a Rockies game.