Nearly two dozen congressional fundraisers held at D.C. Springsteen shows last year
By Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones – ProPublica Reporters
Friday, April 16, 2010
As Bruce Springsteen belted out working-class anthems on the floor of Verizon Center last May, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, was raising money in the privacy of a luxury suite overlooking the stage.
Ten other members of Congress were also asking for cash that night. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was there, too, holding a fundraiser featuring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the Financial Services Committee. It was the ultimate in multitasking for the politicians: three hours of the Boss for free while raising cash for their campaigns and political action committees.
DeFazio’s aerie came with 18 tickets, a wet bar and a private bathroom. His campaign rented it for $2,220 from the American Trucking Associations, whose legislative agenda focuses heavily on highway matters that pass before DeFazio’s subcommittee. DeFazio then “sold” individual box seats to donors for $2,500 a ticket. ATA’s PAC snapped up one seat, which meant DeFazio effectively got the suite for free.
At least 19 congressional fundraisers were held at Springsteen’s two Washington concerts last year, almost half of them in boxes rented from companies or organizations with business before the committees of the lawmakers who used them.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that helps write NASA’s budget, rented his box from a major NASA contractor. Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who is on the Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit subcommittee, rented his from a federal credit union association. Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who sits on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that drafted landmark tobacco-safety legislation last year, got his box from one of the world’s leading cigarette makers.
Others who rented from corporations or trade associations include Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Adrian Smith (R-Neb).
Skybox meet-ups between lawmakers and lobbyists came under criticism during the Jack Abramoff scandal in 2004, but they persist. Lawmakers continue to enjoy easy access to events not available to most Americans. And lobbyists and wealthy business leaders still party with lawmakers who can directly affect their bottom line.
After several rounds of campaign finance reform, the events remain legal, including renting boxes from special interest groups. The only difference is that the corporations and lobbyists don’t provide boxes for free, as they sometimes did before the Abramoff scandal. Instead, they often contribute to the lawmakers’ campaign committees or leadership PACs, which then pay for the event cost.
Last year, at least 108 congressional fundraisers were held at Washington’s three premier sports and entertainment venues, according to invitations obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit agency devoted to government transparency. The true number might be higher because most invitations are never made public.
Because these events are usually kept private, it’s impossible to determine who rubbed shoulders with the politicians or how much money was raised. ProPublica pieced together information about the Springsteen concerts from campaign finance reports filed by the interest groups and the lawmakers, archived party invitations and interviews with the handful of congressional offices and businesses that responded to questions.
Lawmakers and lobbyists insist that legislative decisions aren’t made at these events. But congressional observers say the nighttime fundraising and socializing inevitably influences congressional work. “Unless they’re childhood friends of the congressman, why do they do it?” said former Democratic senator Bill Bradley, who represented New Jersey in the Senate for 18 years. “The issue for them is always access, and that’s what greases the access, so when there’s something they need, they’ll be able to get in and talk to the” lawmakers or their staff.
Only one lawmaker — Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) — allowed a staff member to candidly discuss his event.
Cummings rented his box directly from the company that manages Verizon Center, rather than from a corporation or special interest group. Donors who filled the box were mostly from businesses with interests before the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee that Cummings chairs, spokesman Mike Christianson said.
“It’s the system in which he has to operate,” said Christianson, who said his boss is a longtime supporter of public campaign financing. Timothy Lynch, senior vice president for legislative affairs for the American Trucking Associations, which rented its suite to DeFazio, said he doubts that the gesture could sway DeFazio on highway legislation.
“At the end of the day, it still comes down to a good argument, a factual argument, and members making a judgment of whether they agree with your argument or not,” he said.
Internal lobbying documents prepared by defense and aerospace contractor ATK, which hosted Reps. Smith, Murphy and Ruppersberger at Springsteen concerts last year, make clear that fundraisers are part of a broader influence strategy.
ATK, also known as Alliant Techsystems, dominates the solid-rocket market crucial to NASA’s launch program and had $700 million in NASA contracts last year. In a 2008 document, one mission laid out by the company’s Washington-based government relations office is to “promote and protect NASA Programs” by targeting key members of the Appropriations and the Science and Technology committees, including through the use of fundraisers.
The three members of Congress who rented boxes from ATK for Springsteen concerts all sit on committees important to the company.
Ruppersberger’s campaign paid ATK $7,000 for use of the suite. Just days before the concert, ATK contributed $6,000 to Ruppersberger, who sits on the House Appropriations subcommittee that draws up NASA’s budget and also chairs the House Permanent Select Intelligence subcommittee that oversees satellite intelligence programs. In February, after the Obama administration announced plans to scrap NASA’s Constellation program, Ruppersberger told the trade publication Space News that the cuts could jeopardize national security. Industry analysts say program elimination could cost ATK hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ruppersberger’s campaign press secretary, Heather Molino, did not respond to questions. ATK spokesman Thomas Van Leunen said the company “routinely” makes its box available to customers and elected officials but refused to comment further. ATK also rented boxes to Murphy, who serves on Ruppersberger’s subcommittee, and to Smith, who sits on the House Science and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA research and development. The company gave Smith a $2,500 contribution on the day he rented the box — the same amount the congressman charged for tickets — but the company would not say whether the money bought a seat.
Other lawmakers rented boxes from companies or trade groups with interests before their committees. McHenry rented a suite for a PAC fundraiser from the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, which has a large stake in financial reform legislation being weighed by his Financial Services Committee. Kind rented a suite from the American College of Radiology Association PAC, which heavily lobbied Congress and his Ways and Means subcommittee on health-care reform. Barrow rented his suite from Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris, which had a keen interest in tobacco legislation before his Energy and Commerce health subcommittee. Altria contributed $7,000 to Barrow’s campaign last year, more than offsetting the $6,666 the congressman paid for the suite.
Crowley rented his skybox from GE/NBC Universal. Crowley sits on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, which is considering a repeal of offshore tax-saving strategies popular with multinationals such as GE.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held its May 18 fundraiser in a suite rented from the American Resort Development Association, which had interests in several bills being handled by the Financial Services Committee. That committee is chaired by Barney Frank, the evening’s special guest.
Federal campaign finance laws require that lawmakers pay “fair market value” for skyboxes, but it’s almost impossible for the public to determine whether rules are followed. A spokeswoman for Washington Sports & Entertainment, which manages Verizon Center, said lounge rentals at concerts are usually $4,000 to $8,000.
Of the seven lawmakers who rented boxes directly from Verizon Center, only one paid below the range: Rep. John Carter (R-Tex.), who paid $1,568. Neither his staff nor the Version Center would say why.
Of the eight lawmakers who rented boxes from corporations, two paid less than Verizon Center usually charges. Crowley paid GE/NBC $2,156; DeFazio paid the ATA $2,220. Neither Crowley nor DeFazio responded to questions, but Lynch of the trucking association said Verizon Center set the price, an assertion that Verizon Center denied.
“I don’t believe that’s something we would do,” said Sheila Francis, the spokeswoman for the facility’s management company.
ProPublica researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.