- Burgers cost $15 at Bobby Van's steakhouse in D.C., where lobbyists throw parties for people like Mike Ross.
The events are often in lobbyists' townhouses or in some of the finest restaurants in the nation's capital or at upscale golf courses and lodges.
Watchdog groups say the social events illustrate one of the many sides of the lawmaker-lobbyist relationship that the public knows little about. The Sunlight Foundation depends on copies of fund-raiser invitations that come to it over the transom to put together its list.
Lobbyist assistance in fund-raising events is just as valuable as direct contributions and thus builds often unseen influence for legislative battles. It's another advantage enjoyed by incumbents and the practice isn't likely to go away, if lawmakers have any say.
“There is no chance in hell they will restrict that. It's too ingrained,” said Melanie Sloan, spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
Similarly, the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign research organization helping the Sunlight Foundation's project, says: “The quest for money is never-ending for members of Congress — and social events from breakfasts to barbeques, sporting events to concerts, are held to help fill the coffers. Often hosted by lobbyists or other well-heeled insiders, these events provide opportunities for attendees to support politicians and establish a connection and access to the member.”
The Sunlight Foundation has records indicating heavy use of lobbyist-aided events over the past two years not just by Ross but also by Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln, Democratic Rep. Marion Berry and Republican Rep. John Boozman. Berry is retiring after this year, but Ross and Lincoln are running for re-election and Boozman is opposing Lincoln.
None except Lincoln would respond to requests for comments on the issue.
Melanie Sloan said it's safe to assume each lawmaker has had many more lobbyist-related fund-raisers than those known about.
Of those the foundation does list, Ross is identified with at least 30 going back to March 2008, including two recent events. On Feb. 9, contributors gathered at Bobby Van's, a deluxe steakhouse, where even a burger costs $15. Like invitations to other congressional fund-raisers, the notice of Ross's event, distributed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, suggested donations. It asked for $5,000 a PAC “host.” Other PACs are asked to give $2,000 apiece and individual hosts and contributors are asked for $1,000 contributions.
Many of Ross' events use the Razorback theme.
For instance, on March 3, Ross was to benefit from an “Arkansas Razorback Bar-B-Que” at the townhouse of lobbyist Tim Rupli. Rupli, an ex-aide to former Republican Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, has represented many non-profit and for-profit associations, including payday lenders. He holds scores of fund-raisers.
Sites for some of Ross' other fund-raisers have included a Washington Nationals baseball game; two at the Washington offices of Entergy, three at the Prince George's Country (Maryland) Trap and Skeet Center, one at the Patton Boggs House, named after what many consider the capital's most powerful lobbying firm, and several at pricey restaurants such as Charlie Palmer's Steak, which touts its private dining rooms “where gathering around the table gets things done in the best possible way.”
Lincoln has had at least 11 lobbyist-organized fund-raisers, some of them at the same spots as Ross', the Sunlight Foundation reports. She is not apologetic.
“Senator Lincoln supported campaign finance reform reporting requirements that make fund raising activities by registered lobbyists fully transparent to her constituents,” campaign press aide Katie Laning-Niebaum said in a statement. “These reporting requirements now make it possible for citizens and organizations like the Sunlight Foundation to track fund raising activities by lobbyists and other professional groups for members of Congress. She supported these changes because, regardless of her fund raising totals, Senator Lincoln knows that she will be ultimately accountable to the voters of Arkansas.” Under 2007 legislation, lawmakers must report lobbyists who've bundled more than $16,000.
But Nancy Watzman of the Sunlight Foundation says there is no requirement that lawmakers disclose the involvement of lobbyists in their fund-raising.
Melanie Sloan said she considers it a conflict of interest for lobbyists to contribute to members of Congress whose actions they are trying to influence. Some states have banned lobbyists from directly contributing to legislators but she doubts that will ever happen in Washington.
Boozman has held at least two fund-raisers over the past year at the Capitol Hill Club, a well-known Republican gathering spot down the street from Congress. He has also held one at the UPS Townhouse.
Berry, before announcing his retirement, used his residence near Gillett for several recent fund-raisers, including one last June in which the invitation said: “Burgers, Dogs and Beer on his Back Porch.” The foundation listed 10 Berry events back to 2006, including at a Washington Redskins home game and at golf courses including Raspberry Falls Golf and Hunt Club in Leesburg, Va., and Vista Ridge in Colorado.