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Who’s Paying for the Conventions? Corporate Sponsors Pour Millions into Party Coffers

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Less than two weeks after Congress granted retroactive immunity to telecoms involved in the Bush spy program, it’s been learned AT&T will be emblazoned on every delegate’s bag at the Democratic National Convention. Like Comcast, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Google and a host of other corporate sponsors, the telecom giant has donated over a million dollars to the DNC in return for prominent display space and access to elected officials. But none of these companies have fully disclosed their projected contributions to the convention, according to a new report from the Campaign Finance Institute. We speak with the group’s associate director for policy, Steve Weissman. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s been less than two weeks since the Senate voted to grant immunity to phone companies involved in the Bush administration’s secret domestic surveillance program. Now, some of these same telecom companies, including AT&T and Comcast, are focusing their attention on advertising at the upcoming Democratic National Convention.

AT&T is the official wireless provider at the convention. Like Comcast, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Google and a host of other corporate sponsors, the telecom giant has donated over a million dollars to the DNC in return for prominent display space and access to elected officials. But none of these companies have fully disclosed their projected contributions to the convention, this according to a new report from the Campaign Finance Institute. Out of a reported 146 organizational and corporate donors to both the Democratic and Republican conventions, only thirty-one have disclosed information about their contributions, the report says.

We’re joined now from Houston by Steve Weissman. He’s associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute. We’re also joined on the telephone by Glenn Greenwald, a constitutional law attorney and political and legal blogger for Salon.com. He joins us on the phone from Brazil. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Steve Weissman, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about who gives money to the conventions and how we know how much they give? What are the rules?

STEPHEN WEISSMAN: Well, the money is given not to the convention specifically, but to the host committee for the convention, but the host committee for the convention’s fundraisers are people from the party that’s holding the convention, so it’s like giving the money directly to the party.

And what we know about them before the convention is just whatever the host committees feel like disclosing. There are no requirements to disclose the donors and the amounts that they are giving. And, in fact, neither of the host committees this year for either convention, unlike past years, have chosen to disclose officially the amounts of money that they’re getting. And the amounts are very large, because, combined, private money for support of the two conventions this year will exceed $112 million. So, all we know at this point is unofficially, or some companies have, you know, decided to release this information voluntarily.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, in terms of individual contributing, there are caps set. In terms of these corporate contributions, why are they considered in a different category?

STEPHEN WEISSMAN: Because there’s a pleasant fiction that’s been created, that the corporations are really just giving the money to promote the convention city, even though at least half the money is not going to come from corporations who are even headquartered in that state. And this fiction was created in the 1990s around the same time that unlimited soft money began to flow to the political parties. The Federal Election Commission has certified that this is the motivation for giving. It recertified it in 2003.

It’s totally prohibited to give unlimited contributions to political parties. It’s totally prohibited for a corporation or a union to just go right into its treasury and give money to political parties. Yet, under an exemption that was created by the Federal Election Commission, which essentially is made up of representatives of the two major parties, all of this money can be given if it’s given through a host committee under the pretense that it’s merely to promote the convention city.

And we’ve shown in our reports that the companies that are supporting these two conventions have already — are companies that have already spent, in the last — since the last presidential election, $1.1 billion lobbying the federal government. So, even if some of them have in part a kind of civic booster notion, obviously these people are very concerned with federal legislation, and in return for this money — we could discuss this, I hope we do — the parties, through the host committees, offer access to top politicians, to the President, the future president, Vice President, cabinet officials, senators, congressmen. They promise these companies who are giving that they will be able to not only get close to these people by hosting receptions, by access to VIP areas, but they’ll actually have meetings with them.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain more fully how it works and which are the corporations you’ve identified that have given this kind of money. On the one hand, you’re talking about lobbying in general, and then they give a separate amount of money, which some could call lobbying, by giving it to the convention.

STEPHEN WEISSMAN: That’s right. By giving it to these host committees, they assure themselves of gratitude from the national party, from the presidential candidate, because what is a convention except the biggest and longest ad of the presidential election? And to have that speech come off well, to have the lighting and the rigging and all of the sound and the Broadway producers who do it, to have the production and the setting look just right, to have specially built podiums and so forth, that will earn gratitude.

Now, we’ve seen that there are 146 companies that are giving, of which nearly forty are giving to both conventions. And they are all the biggest companies you can imagine. The ones who voluntarily — and they deserve some praise for this — have at least said how much they’re giving include Qwest Communications, which is giving $6 million to each convention; Comcast, which pledged $5 million to the Democratic convention; we also have United Healthcare, which has released the amount of money they’re giving to the Republican convention, is clearly giving a million or more to both conventions; Xcel Energy, which has some big nuclear plants, which is giving money, over a million, to both conventions.

And if you go right down the list, whether it’s Lockheed giving to the Democrats or Safeway giving to the Democrats, whether Republicans are getting money from St. Jude, which produces medical devices, Medtronic is giving to both, AT&T, and so forth, this is where the big money is coming into the conventions. And often the press will focus on the fact that some of the same companies will have a party at the convention, invite members of Congress, but that party costs a lot less, and the whole national political party is less grateful for that than they are for the massive amounts of funding they’re getting to actually put on this big political ad.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald is joining Steve Weissman. Glenn Greenwald is on the phone right now, a constitutional law attorney, a political and legal blogger at Salon.com. You’ve written a number of pieces on this, among them “The AT&T Convention in Denver.” Can you talk about the significance of the welcome bags?

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, there was a bag that was designed by the convention and reported by a blogger who writes about the convention in Denver that was really just illustrative, more than anything else, of everything that Mr. Weissman was discussing. I mean, it has the Democratic National Committee convention logo on it, and then right underneath, very large, it has an AT&T logo. And that’s the bag that will be given to every delegate and member of the media who attends the convention.

And the reason why that’s just so symbolically interesting is because the Democrats in Congress just last month gave an extraordinary gift of telecom amnesty to most of the entire telecom industry, including AT&T and Comcast, in order to protect them from lawsuits and in a bill that was written by the telecom industry and their lobbyists. So, to turn around and see such a sort of tawdry expression of the very close relationship between the telecom industry and the Democrats, who had just given them an extraordinary gift, was, I thought, quite remarkable.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you feel like the Democrats — well, the Republicans, of course, wanted this. President Bush was pushing very hard for the immunity. This is retroactive immunity for the telecommunications companies involved with the spy scandal. But this was just a few weeks ago, less than two weeks ago, that this was pushed through by the Democrats. And of course, the big story, Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential candidate, who had said he would be involved in a filibuster against such granting of retroactive immunity, actually turned around and voted for it, saying that the bill was a compromise.

GLENN GREENWALD: Well, that’s exactly right. I mean, President Bush and the White House have been demanding amnesty for all sorts of lawbreakers involved in torture and rendition and spying programs for many years. But none of that would have happened had the Democratic leadership in the Congress, led by Jay Rockefeller in the Senate and Steny Hoyer, the House Majority Leader, the Democratic House Majority Leader in the House, not gotten together and negotiated a bill that immunized the entire telecom industry for any crimes that they have committed or any violations of the privacy rights of their customers for allowing government spying on their customers without warrants.

And as I indicated, Steny Hoyer and Jay Rockefeller, when they were drafting the bill, were actually negotiating directly with representatives of the telecom industry. They had hired an extraordinarily bipartisan cast of lobbyists, former Clinton officials like Jamie Gorelick and others, who was number two in the Justice Department at the Clinton administration. And they negotiated directly with the telecoms, and the telecoms would give them proposals for how they wanted the amnesty to read.

And in the meantime, privacy groups, like Electronic Frontier Foundation, and civil liberties groups, like the ACLU, and other citizen groups were frozen out of the process completely. The Democrats in Congress literally turned over the process to AT&T, Comcast and others, in order to write this extraordinary law to protect them from consequences for having broken our laws. And so, to read about how at the same time they’re funding to the tune of many, many millions of dollars the Democratic National Convention is just a very potent illustration of this sleazy process that drives our lawmaking process.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting. A recent analysis showed Democratic Congress members who changed their vote to support the immunizing of telecom companies in the FISA bill have on average received thousands more from phone companies than those Democrats who voted consistently against immunity. Ninety-four Democrats voted against immunity as recently as March but changed their votes to support it. And according to MAPLight.org, these Democrats have received on average $8,000 in telecom contributions over the last three years. The 116 Democrats who remained opposed to immunity received on average $5,000.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right. There are so many levels of the way in which that telecom money and corporate money floods the Congress. I mean, you have direct campaign contributions. And that study that you just described is incredibly insightful about the process. And right before Jay Rockefeller in the Senate became the most vocal advocate for telecom amnesty, huge amounts of telecom money poured into his campaign coffers. And in fact Wired magazine did a study showing that, prior to that, he received virtually no money, and right as telecom amnesty became a big issue, all sorts of telecom executives and companies poured money into his coffers, had campaign parties for him, created this connection, this social and financial connection. And he then became their greatest advocate.

On top of that, you have millions and millions and millions of dollars, as Mr. Weissman described, in lobbying fees from these telecom industries. And then you have the fact that they fund so many of the party apparatus that there’s almost very little separation between the party leadership and the telecom industry. And you see that in terms of how the Democratic Congress behave. I mean, a majority of them voted against telecom amnesty in the House, but far more than enough of them in the House and in the Senate voted in favor of it. And as you say, the ones who did have very strong connections to the telecom industry, in terms of contributions and lobbying.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Weissman of the Campaign Finance Institute, your response?

STEPHEN WEISSMAN: Well, this provokes the memory of what happened in 2004 when the Democrats were collecting money for their convention in Boston. One of the leading fundraisers was Senator Kennedy. And his major focus — or a major focus, not his — not the major focus, but a major emphasis, was on getting drug company money. And at the very same time that Senator Kennedy was soliciting money from the pharmaceutical companies, he softened his position on legislation dealing with Medicare prescription drugs prices. And that played a role in the eventual conference agreement between the House and the Senate on a bill that essentially did not allow the federal government to regulate the price of prescriptions.

Now, no drug company could have given Senator Kennedy the kind of money that he was collecting for the convention. No party could have asked the drug company for that money. So you can see, I think, the importance of the convention as fitting into — as Glenn was saying, it fits into a pattern where you have limited contributions the company executives can give, where they can guide through their PACs, where they can solicit limited contributions from their executives, lobbying money they’re spending, and then on top of it, every four years, the corporation can directly from its treasury — or the union, as the SEIU, for example, is doing at both conventions — can give unlimited funds to these parties, and therefore there could be obligations.

And some of the key fundraisers — another point that we tried to make in our studies — some of the key fundraisers are like bundlers, who bundle limited contributions. They are people who are going to receive the gratitude of people who benefit from their fundraising. And in Denver, Steve Farber, who is a key lawyer, a very prominent, very distinguished lawyer and a community activist, is also a partner in Brownstein Farber, one of the biggest lobbying firms in the United States and in Washington, D.C., and he’s been approaching his clients, whether they’re Google, whether United Healthcare, whether they’re Qwest, and asking them repeatedly for money for the convention. So he’s getting together all this money.

And we have the irony that we have a Democratic candidate, Senator Obama, who is not taking lobbyist money directly, who is not taking money from PACs that are guided by companies, but who is benefiting from the efforts of his own bundlers, but also someone like Steve Farber, who can bundle money legally — and there’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing, legally — from all of these corporate clients of his.

And another illustration, a final illustration, of the problems involved in this is, who’s the Secretary of the Treasury of the United States? It’s Henry Paulson. And what is the most prominent thing Henry Paulson had done for the Republican Party before he became Secretary of the Treasury? It was promising, pledging and apparently making good on his pledge to raise $5 million for the 2004 Republican convention.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you think, Steve Weissman, this should change? And also, on the issue of finding out who has given money, both to the Democratic and Republican conventions, when do we find out? At this point, you know something like, what, $26 million of the $112 million.

STEPHEN WEISSMAN: Right. We only know that voluntarily. Normally, when people pay money that goes into financing ads, like the presidential nominating conventions — because they are really ads — you find out fairly soon after the money is given, no more than three months afterwards. In this situation, with conventions, because of all the fictions created about host committees and not really political, we have a situation where you don’t find out anything ’til sixty days after the convention, which is practically after or just at about the moment of the presidential election. So there’s no opportunity to really know who’s funding. There’s no opportunity to give feedback to candidates about particular funders. You only find out officially sixty days after the election — after the convention, which is a form of election, and that’s at the very moment, virtually, people are voting.

The solution that we have advocated — “we” meaning the Campaign Finance Institute, which is a nonpartisan research group convened, a multi-partisan group of people and academics and good government people, and they kind of came to this solution — really was to go back to — well, to go back to the notion that the conventions may need a little more money than their federal grant, because they get a federal grant of $16 million each, but that this money should be limited, just like all the other contributions that are made, and that would mean that it was hard money, as they call it, rather than soft money.

So the solution that our task force favored and that we’re expressing — it was, as I say, a nonpartisan task force — is that the Congress pass a law, and it says no more soft money for these conventions, no corporate treasury, union treasury, no unlimited individual money, because there’s some of that in there, as well, individuals giving millions. Instead, the parties — let’s discard this host committee fiction — the parties can go out there and ask people to help the convention, but with the same limits where they’re asking people to help them normally. And that way, you would cut down on the soft money aspect, the most corrupting aspect, where a business can give millions of dollars to a convention.

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Weissman, I want to thank you very much for being with us, associate director for policy at the Campaign Finance Institute. Glenn Greenwald, you’ve also written about the attorney raising the money, Mr. Farber, in your blog.

GLENN GREENWALD: Right, absolutely. I mean, if you look at — again, he’s quite [inaudible] — I mean, if you look at how he functions, I mean, he is partners in his lobbying firm that Steve Weissman mentioned, one of the most influential lobbying firms, with a whole slew of highly influential Republicans, including the wife of Charlie Black, John McCain’s chief lobbyist/adviser and the former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

And so, what this is is it’s a very bipartisan corporate-political class that really functions without regard to things like ideological belief or political positions. Democrats, Republicans really don’t matter in this world. It’s a political and corporate class that is very insulated and has its own interests and ensures that those interests are served by the Congress, no matter which party is in control. And they write their own rules that apply only to them and to nobody else. And it’s really at the center of why Americans are so deeply dissatisfied with how our government functions.

AMY GOODMAN: Glenn Greenwald, we’re going to ask you to stay on the phone. We’re going to go to break. Constitutional law attorney, political and legal blogger for Salon.com. And when we come back, we’ll also be joined by Cass Sunstein. He is co-author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. We’ll talk about that but also talk about some of the issues that we have just raised. Stay with us.

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