Politics

Big Donors Are Keeping Low Profiles at the Conventions

Thanks to new ethics rules and the historic unpopularity of Trump and Clinton, companies are downsizing their plans.

Microsoft's Finnish headquarters in Espoo.

Microsoft’s Finnish headquarters in Espoo.

Vesa Moilanen/Getty Images

Protesters will shout. Delegates may revolt. Factions will haggle over rules and platform proposals.

But come later this month, no amount of friction will stop corporations, unions, and special interests from spending tens of millions of dollars to bankroll nonstop partying at the Democratic and Republican national conventions. Thank federal campaign finance rules that allow unlimited contributions to support them.

Special interests concerned about chaos under their corporate logos shouldn’t fret. There are plenty of ways to show support for the quadrennial bacchanalias and discreetly secure access to lawmakers and political power players without earning unwanted attention.

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Certainly some high-profile companies and individual donors—the list includes billionaire Paul Singer, Apple, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart—are scaling back on giving to the host committees this time.

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Some reportedly want to distance themselves from controversies surrounding presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee-in-waiting, is also historically unpopular with the public and attempting to weather fallout from her State Department email imbroglio, in which the FBI this week deemed her conduct “extremely careless” but not worthy of criminal charges.

Meanwhile, many special interests, from Comcast Corp. to financial giant JPMorgan Chase to insurer Blue Cross Blue Shield, will participate in convention-related activities. But they’ve become more creative in how they influence conventioneers—or are altogether refusing to discuss their convention plans.

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“They want to show up, they want to rub elbows with everyone at the conventions, they just don’t want the corporate name out there,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for advocacy group Public Citizen, which has long tracked influence efforts at the conventions. “They’ll be looking for lower-key ways of doing the same thing they’ve always done.”

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The Center for Public Integrity contacted dozens of companies to inquire about their plans for contributing to the convention host committees or sponsoring private events at the collection. The companies include the largest contributors to both 2012 national conventions and the top 10 Fortune 500 companies.

Many didn’t respond to questions, and almost none would provide specific details about their 2016 convention involvement. But through public records and other sources, the Center for Public Integrity identified major sponsorship opportunities and big-time backers.

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One way to keep a lower profile is to sponsor a delegation. The Republican National Convention’s Texas delegation offers sponsorship packages ranging from the $5,000 “Bluebonnet Club” to the $50,000 “Lone Star Club”—something for every budget.

Most packages include a certain number of passes to the convention and official delegation events, and the ability to book hotel rooms at the same hotel as the delegation, ensuring easy access.

Public recognition also comes with a sponsorship. But this year, many sponsors don’t want their names associated with supporting the Republican National Convention.

“Part of the package is that they’re recognized, and some of them have chosen not to be recognized publicly,” delegation consultant Beth Cubriel said, adding, “they just want to be supportive of the delegates.”

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The sponsorships have been almost entirely snapped up, Cubriel said.

Indeed, there’s more than one way to support the conventions, and many routes are decidedly opaque.

If you’re a special interest that wants to make a splash, you have three main options:

The most direct route is to give a six- or seven-figure contribution straight to the host committees—nonprofit organizations created to organize, host, and fund the convention. These contributions will be publicly disclosed, but not until 60 days after the event. Corporations and unions may give money directly to these committees.

A second option, new this year, permits individuals and political committees to write checks directly to special “convention accounts” administered by the Democratic and Republican parties themselves.

Political parties at one time received $18 million each in public funding for their conventions in addition to money earmarked for security. But Congress eliminated this funding in 2014. To make it up, lawmakers created special “convention” accounts for each political party allowing individuals to contribute $100,200 and political action committees to kick in $45,000. That’s in addition to other contributions to the party.

Corporations and unions may not give directly to these accounts, although political action committees they sponsor may do so.

Republicans have so far raised roughly triple the amount of Democrats: more than $15 million so far this cycle through the end of May, compared to approximately $5 million. Those contributions are disclosed monthly.

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The DNC declined to comment on the new convention fundraising accounts. In a statement, the RNC said the money they raise “will be used to defray the costs of putting on a national convention.”

The third option: throw a private party for lawmakers and partisan bigwigs. Such affairs might fly under the radar—great for many attention-avoiding special interests in 2016—but they require all involved to follow a convoluted bunch of federal ethics rules.

Approaches among influence peddlers vary.

A host of Republican officeholders and eminences have announced they’ll be skipping the Cleveland event this year, contributing to questions about whether large investments are worth it, especially since most companies like to support both conventions to the same degree.

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Kevin O’Neill, co-chair of the legislative practice group at law and lobbying firm Arnold and Porter, said clients have always gone through a process to evaluate the value of participating, and it’s been declining.

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Now, O’Neill said, lobbying firm clients are concluding, “If we’re going we should have a smaller footprint, a smaller visibility, it should be very targeted, and we should do anything we can to steer our brand clear of controversy. You have two candidates here that have some high negatives, and that gives people pause.”

Wal-Mart spokesman Greg Hitt said the company’s political action committee is contributing $15,000 to the convention fund for each party this election cycle and won’t be giving additional money to the host committees. Compare that to the $150,000 corporate contribution Wal-Mart gave to the host committee for the Republican convention in 2012.

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Singer, a major Republican donor, has also contributed to the party convention account, and gave the maximum $100,200 in 2015. Microsoft’s PAC gave $15,000 to the DNC’s convention account.

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Some companies that have contributed heavily in the past, such as FedEx, which gave $250,000 to the Republican convention in 2012, did not respond to multiple inquiries about their plans this year.

Such circumstances don’t make soliciting large donations any easier. But representatives of both parties’ host committees say they’re nevertheless closing in on their fundraising goals: $50 million for the Democratic host committee and $57 million for the Republicans.

Representatives of both host committees acknowledge they’re relying heavily on big corporations anchored in their host cities, which is typical.

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The strong regional appeal of conventions also means many big contributors from four years ago— companies headquartered in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Tampa, Florida, for instance—aren’t necessarily in the mix this time.

By the time the Republican National Committee decided to award the convention to Cleveland, “we had nearly $30 million in commitments and the vast majority were from northeast Ohio or other parts of Ohio,” said David Gilbert, president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee.

Consider KeyCorp., the Cleveland-based parent company of Key Bank.

Beth Mooney, the company’s chairwoman and chief executive officer, is co-chair of the Cleveland host committee. So far, the company has disclosed contributing $333,333.33 to the host committee in 2015.

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Jack Sparks, director of communications for KeyCorp, did not respond to a question from the Center for Public Integrity about whether KeyCorp had given additional contributions to the host committee or planned to host private events.

Sparks did say the company “looks for innovative opportunities to help Cleveland and northeast Ohio to thrive” and “is proud to partner with the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee as the committee works to make the most of the national spotlight that will shine on Cleveland during the Republican National Convention.”

Democratic convention organizers, meanwhile, are rebuilding their corporate base almost from scratch after prohibiting direct corporate, political action committee, and lobbyist donations during 2008 and 2012.

Some companies still found ways to give, notably Duke Energy, which forgave millions of dollars in loans after the 2012 convention. But fundraisers for the Philadelphia host committee have had to convince many companies that putting the Democratic convention line item back in their budgets this year is a good idea.

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Unions, which constituted seven of the top 20 contributors to the host committee for the Charlotte convention in 2012, appear to again be stepping up for Democrats.

At a National Press Club event in June highlighting preparations for the Democratic convention, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and Kevin Washo, the host committee’s executive director, said support from organized labor has been key.

“Organized labor has been at the forefront of this bid, both in terms of support financially and the commitment to the work that’s being done at the arena,” Washo said.

The Bricklayers AFL-CIO reported contributing $1.35 million to the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee in 2015, according to a filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. James Boland, president of the bricklayers’ union, is an at-large member of the Democratic National Committee.

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Other unions have so far reported smaller contributions, including $50,000 from the plumbers’ union and $10,000 from the Service Employees System Council.

On the corporate front, David L. Cohen, a senior executive vice president at Comcast Corp., is a “special adviser” to the Philadelphia host committee, an informal but high-profile role.

The PAC of Comcast, one of Philadelphia’s most prominent corporate citizens, has given $45,000 to the convention funds for both parties, according to public filings.

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Comcast declined to answer questions about its contributions to the host committee or other arrangements tied to the convention, and refused to confirm plans for a party at the Barnes Foundation, a high-profile art museum.

For another way to avoid controversy, take the approach adopted by JPMorgan Chase. In 2012, the company gave $200,000 directly to the host committee for the Republican convention in Tampa, according to host committee filings with the Federal Election Commission reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

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This time? The two host committees are apparently getting bupkis from the financial industry giant. Instead, JPMorgan Chase is giving $300,000 to nonprofits in Cleveland and Philadelphia in support of summer youth employment programs but linking the charitable contributions to the conventions.

“JPMorgan Chase decided that the best way to support these conventions was to support the cities themselves where the events will take place,” JPMorgan Chase global government relations head Nate Gatten wrote in a blog post about the contributions.

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In press releases touting the charitable contributions, JPMorgan Chase first mentions the national conventions in the eighth paragraph of its Philadelphia press release and the seventh and last paragraph of its Cleveland release.

Of course, much of the mingling between influencers and politicians takes place at private events: parties, concerts, hospitality suites.

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Those aren’t simple to throw together. They’re governed by a variety of ethics rules, including some that apply only to events conducted during the conventions. The rules, many passed in response to influence-peddling scandals, govern even small details and often seem illogical.

Individual members can’t be honored by special interests, for example, but delegations can. Senators can be billed as “featured speakers,” but House members cannot.

The rules even cover the types of food that may be served. In other words, no dangling entire lobsters off toothpicks.

Kenneth Gross, head of the political law practice at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, and a veteran of the confusing tangle of rules governing convention events, quipped that he’s stopped reviewing menus himself. “I have a sous chef who does that,” Gross joked.

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Seriously, though, this isn’t a good area for misunderstandings. Not only are the rules technical, they aren’t uniform. There are different restrictions for members of the U.S. House of Representatives than for senators, and states have their own ethics requirements.

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“We remind people these conventions are not ethics-free zones,” Gross said.

Some observers, including Public Citizen’s Holman and elections lawyer Brett Kappel, say they’re seeing fewer signs of private events this time. Kappel says he hasn’t received a single inquiry from clients seeking legal advice regarding holding events at, or in association with, the 2016 conventions. That’s down from several inquiries four years ago.

Rich Gold, head of law and lobbying firm Holland and Knight’s public policy practice, said the firm is still nailing down its convention plans, but they will be more modest than in past years. For example, he said, the firm will co-host a dinner for Democratic mayors in Philadelphia.

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In 2012, he said, the firm’s large office in Tampa and its representation of the city of Charlotte prompted it to hold much larger events with hundreds of guests and live performances. Clients, too, are taking a more muted approach, he said, given the turmoil this year.

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In addition to the tension on the Republican side, “I just don’t think … given the major issues on the Democratic side now in terms of income inequality and CEO pay, that this is the time to have an outlandish presence,” he said. “People are trying to be more tasteful.”

There are still plenty of schmoozefests to attend—if you know how to score an invite.

For example, law firm Dentons is hosting events at both conventions—one honoring former DNC chairs Joe Andrew and Howard Dean at a rooftop garden in Philadelphia, and one spotlighting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to an invite obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. All three men now work with Dentons, one of the world’s largest law firms. Andrew serves as its global chairman.

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Political Party Time, the Sunlight Foundation database that tracks invitations to fundraisers, has so far obtained two convention party invites—one for a “Sex, Politics, and Cocktails” fundraiser for Planned Parenthood Action Fund at the Democratic National Convention and another offering sponsorship packages for the “Republican All Star Challenge” at Progressive Field in Cleveland, honoring Republican members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee as well as the Republican Congressional Baseball Team. (Yes, such a team exists, playing annually against Democrats in the name of charity.)

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Invitations for several other Cleveland events are making the rounds.

The country band Rascal Flatts, which has Ohio roots, is headlining the “Buckeye Welcome Bash,” a July 18 reception in Cleveland sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic Educational Foundation and the Jones Day Foundation.

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The reception benefits the Case Comprehensive Cancer Center and honors Steve LaTourette, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio who is now chairman and chief executive officer of the Main Street Partnership, an advocacy group.

The Jones Day Foundation is the charitable arm of the law firm Jones Day, which was founded in Cleveland and still has deep roots there. Of particular note: The Trump campaign’s legal team is led by Jones Day lawyer and former Federal Election Commission Chairman Don McGahn. Jones Day partner Chris Kelly is a co-host of the Republican convention host committee in Cleveland.

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Jones Day did not respond to a request for comment.

Country singer Kip Moore will headline a concert in Cleveland sponsored by the Republican Governors Association—and honoring Republican governors—and BGR Group, the lobbying firm headed by former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour.

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Sponsorship packages for the event are split into a $25,000 and $50,000 tiers, and include tickets, photo opportunities with Moore, sponsorship signage, and other benefits.

Country duo Big and Rich is headlining another benefit concert; sponsor logos on the “Make Housing Great Again” invite include the Mortgage Bankers Association.

There are also notices for a series of concerts planned to honor the House Republican Whip team, among others, that benefit a charity called Concerts for a Cause, which raises money for epilepsy-related causes.

Another event, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, will honor the Republican leadership and members of the U.S. Senate. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi are featured speakers, and the event will be sponsored by AFLAC, Blue Cross Blue Shield, and AT&T.

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When asked for comment, an AFLAC spokesman said the company is sponsoring events at both conventions, though he didn’t give details. A spokesman for AT&T, which is the official communications and technology provider for both conventions, said the company supports them “on an impartial basis.” Blue Cross Blue Shield did not respond to requests for comment.

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AT&T is also subsidizing free admission for all to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during the Republican convention.

In Philadelphia, there are signs that high-profile private venues are booking up.

The Barnes Foundation, whose Philadelphia campus houses its world-famous art collection and offers a wide range of high-end event spaces, is “nearly fully booked” for private events during the convention, according to Deirdre Maher, the director of communications, who also said the convention has brought “an uptick in interest.”

And pro-Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action, which has raised more than $88 million this election, will co-host a “unity party” at the Electric Factory, a storied Philadelphia music venue.

Headlining the event? Rapper Snoop Dogg—a curious choice, given that his lyrics have frequently referred to women in a variety of derogatory ways.

But Snoop Dogg promised in 2015 to never again call a woman a “bitch“ or “ho,” and he has since endorsed Clinton, who has made women’s rights a cornerstone issue of her campaign.

This story was published by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C. To read more of its work on national security and the Pentagon, follow it on Facebook and Twitter.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.

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