Lobbyists' hidden tool: Philanthropy

They do not seem the most likely classical music patrons: Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

But together, these defense contractors are donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to the symphony orchestra in Johnstown, Pa., underwriting performances of Mozart and Wagner in this struggling former steel town. A defense lobbying firm, the PMA Group, even sprang for a champagne reception at the symphony's opera festival last month.

The companies say they are being generous corporate citizens. But the orchestra is also a beloved cause of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., whose congressional committee hands out lucrative defense contracts, and whose wife, Joyce, is a major booster of the symphony.

“She just loves knowing that we have an orchestra that is the quality of a larger city orchestra,” the symphony executive director, Patricia Hofscher, said of Joyce Murtha. “Her friends have come here and been impressed by the quality of the orchestra in a geographic and economic region that, let's face it, are not on the beaten path.”

For the first time, corporations and their lobbyists are being required to disclose donations they make to the favorite causes of House and Senate members, and a review of thousands of pages of records shows the extent — and lavishness — of this once hidden practice.

During the first six months of 2008, lobbyists, corporations and interest groups gave approximately $13 million to charities and nonprofit organizations on behalf of members of the House and Senate. The donations came from numerous companies with interests before the Congress, such as Wal-Mart, Ford, Kraft Foods and Pfizer, and were received by charities connected to more than 200 House and Senate members.

Among the recipients were the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation, named for the S.C. Democrat and majority whip; the Baca Foundation, established by Rep. Joe Baca, D-Calif., to help low-income families in his congressional district; and the Richard G. Lugar Center for Renewable Energy, founded in honor of the Indiana senator, a Republican.

In interviews, donors said they were supporting worthy causes, such as scholarships, research and museums. But several also acknowledged that charitable giving is a way to build good will with lawmakers, whose decisions can have a huge effect on their business.

In addition, with new restrictions on the access lobbyists have to lawmakers, the practice provides the lobbyists a way to publicly support — and, sometimes, mingle with — the members of Congress and their staffs.

“It's a very personal way to curry favor with powerful lawmakers,” said Keith Ashdown, the chief investigator for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. “It's also a lobbying tactic that is not completely understood or even known by the public.”

Clyburn, the third most powerful lawmaker in the House, has a scholarship fund bearing his name, which took in nearly $90,000 in donations during the first half of 2008, with contributions from energy, pharmaceutical and transportation companies that have business before Congress. Among the donors to the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation is the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association representing the nuclear industry, which gave $10,000 during that period, on top of previous donations of about $20,000 in recent years, according to an association spokesman.

“Congressman Clyburn has never been shy to say he supports nuclear power,” said Hannah Simone, senior director of governmental affairs for the institute.

Two months before the $10,000 donation in June, Clyburn appeared before a gathering of the nation's energy marketers and said he would urge his colleagues on the Hill to encourage greater use of nuclear power in the energy bill Congress was considering at the time.

Kristie Greco, a spokeswoman for Clyburn, said that the congressman created the foundation 20 years ago to provide students the opportunity to go to college, and he does not solicit donations personally.

“As a former public school teacher, Congressman Clyburn saw firsthand that many smart and talented students were not applying for college because they couldn't afford tuition,” she said. “The foundation is an independent nonprofit, run by a board which solicits donations and manages the scholarship application process.”

Greco also noted that Clyburn's support of the nuclear industry is not unusual. “South Carolina is a big nuclear state,” she said.

In Johnstown, the local symphony's reliance on defense contractors for financing was hard to miss on the evening of Sept. 20, as the Murthas greeted guests at the annual Opera Festival, a black-tie affair at the Pasquerilla center.

The event raises about 20 percent of the symphony's annual $650,000 budget.

A program for the event paid tribute to the Congressman and Mrs. John P. Murtha Endowment to Benefit the Johnstown Symphony Orchestra. It saluted its platinum sponsors, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman, which are committed to giving $100,000 each; gold sponsors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which are giving $50,000; and a silver sponsor, at $25,000, the PMA Group. The donations from the defense contractors are part of multiyear commitments to the symphony, according to company representatives and Hofscher.

Asked in an e-mail message if Murtha had any concern that the contractors may be giving to the symphony to curry favor with the congressman, his spokesman, Matthew Mazonkey, replied, “No.”

Escorting his wife, a tuxedoed Murtha greeted guests as they arrived. Joyce Murtha has been the honorary chairwoman of the gala for eight years.

Unlike his wife, John Murtha is not a fan of opera.

“Congressman Murtha comes because he supports Joyce,” Hofscher said. “He just likes different kinds of music.”