- Keenan Steiner
a staff writer for the Sunlight Foundation. He has been covering the lead-up to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida. His most recent article is called "Did AT&T Rent Out Sprawling Eatery to Influence Lawmakers All Week?"
The Republican National Convention in Tampa is officially beginning today after Monday’s session was postponed due to Tropical Storm Isaac. But the storm did not stop the partying. Dozens of events have already been held across Tampa — mostly paid for by lobbyists and corporations taking advantage of loopholes. We’re joined by Keenan Steiner, staff writer at the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based organization that promotes transparency in government. To keep track of the RNC’s sponsored events and parties, the group has launched a website called "Political Party Time." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, "Breaking With Convention: War, Peace and the Presidency." We’re broadcasting from Tampa, Florida, here at the Republican National Convention, inside and out.
Yes, the RNC is officially beginning today, after Monday’s session was canceled due to Tropical Storm Isaac. But the storm didn’t stop the partying. Dozens of parties have already been held across Tampa, mostly paid for by lobbyists and corporations. The list of party sponsors includes AT&T, McDonald’s, the Chamber of Commerce, Comcast, BlueCross BlueShield, Motorola, Duke Energy. Many of the parties have been designed to take advantage of loopholes in corporate finance laws. According to the Sunlight Foundation, House ethics rules bar lobbyists and organizations employing lobbyists from holding events to honor an individual member of Congress. But they are allowed to put on lavish events that honor a group of members.
To keep track of corporate parties, the Sunlight Foundation, a D.C.-based organization that promotes transparency in government, has launched a website called Party Time. Joining us now, Keenan Steiner, staff writer at the Sunlight Foundation. His most recent piece is called "Did AT&T Rent Out Sprawling Eatery to Influence Lawmakers All Week?"
Keenan, welcome to Democracy Now! in this stormy town—
KEENAN STEINER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: —of Tampa, not quite hurricane strength, but at least tropical storm. It’s nice to have a little sunlight.
KEENAN STEINER: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s start off with AT&T. Actually, I’ve got here, schwag bag. This was a party for the Michigan delegation. And it is—well, we’ve got it right here—AT&T.
KEENAN STEINER: There you go.
AMY GOODMAN: And inside, we’ve got the elephant, and it’s got an AT&T logo on it. And what else do we have here? We’ve got a pin that everyone can wear that says, "Republican National Convention AT&T." And we’ve got, oh, a little pin, "Be Bold. BlackBerry." OK, let’s talk, though, about AT&T, because that is your latest piece. Talk about the bigger picture of the corporations sponsoring the parties here, and then we’ll start with AT&T.
KEENAN STEINER: Sure. So, we have over 200—we have about 200 parties happening this week in Tampa alone that we know about, and these are parties that require $20,000, $25,000 sponsorships from corporations. They get a bunch of tickets. They get to send their lobbyists there. They get to send their friends there to rub shoulders with members of Congress. And when members of Congress are legislating next year, they can remember who threw them the party, if it was AT&T, if it was the Chamber of Commerce, other influential interest groups. So this is where the seeds are planted for laws to be written in Washington and in state capitols all over the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, I clearly remember back to 2008, four years ago, one of the first parties at the Democratic convention in Denver was a party that was sponsored by AT&T. It was not only one little party that had the AT&T logo emblazoned on it. The Democratic delegates, every bag had the AT&T logo. This is the thousands of delegates at the Democratic convention.
KEENAN STEINER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, at that time, AT&T and other cable—and other companies, telecoms, had been pushing hard to get retroactive immunity for spying on Americans. Senator Obama had put on his website—this is before—in the midst of running for president, but he was not yet elected—he had put on his website that he would filibuster any kind of retroactive immunity bill. He not only did not filibuster it; right before the convention, he voted for the retroactive immunity for these companies’, like AT&T’s, spying. And within a few weeks, we had the delegate bag emblazoned with the AT&T logo. The significance of this and what it means for delegates coming, sometimes first elected to their local legislatures, when corporations sponsor this?
KEENAN STEINER: Sure, sure. The significance is, they wouldn’t be here, able to have a good time the whole time, without these corporations. It’s a sort of starting process to become dependent on these corporations. And in Washington, lawmakers require the about 100 lobbyists, over 20 lobbying firms that AT&T hires—they require the work of these folks to get their work done. They’re a sort of legislative subsidy. And they also require these corporations to get re-elected. They want to stay in office, and you better be friends with the Chamber of Commerce, with the NRA, with the big nonprofit groups, the shadowy nonprofit groups, that you really better be friends with them, because, if not, they could drop a lot of money in your district, and they could make you lose an election.
AMY GOODMAN: "Shadowy nonprofits," what do you mean?
KEENAN STEINER: So, this year, more than ever, in this year’s election, it’s being dominated by groups that don’t disclose their donors. That is Americans for Prosperity, the Koch brothers-funded group, and American—and Crossroads GPS—have combined to spend already $60 million on the election for the president. That’s more than the super PACs. Those super PACs can—they disclose their donors, but the big deal here are the shadowy nonprofits. And with the Republican outside groups estimated to spend about $1 billion in this election, the really important part of that is these groups that say they are social welfare groups, and they have that tax-exempt status, but really they are election groups. They are groups influencing the election, and they’re doing it tax-free.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the U.S. government subsidies here. I’m looking at a Village Voice blog, talks about—they start off with taxpayers are footing the Democratic and Republican conventions to the tune of like, starting off, $136 million—$50 million each for security—and we’ll be broadcasting some of the protests and the security they met here in Tampa.
KEENAN STEINER: Yep.
AMY GOODMAN: Eighteen million each for the parties for the conventions?
KEENAN STEINER: Yep, exactly, $18 million each in taxpayer money to put the speeches on and all of that, both conventions.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, this is the party here in Tampa that decries government spending.
KEENAN STEINER: This is the party here that decries government spending, exactly.
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, yesterday at the convention, didn’t they start—although they canceled the convention last night, they gaveled in and gaveled out in the afternoon, and at that time, they started a debt clock.
KEENAN STEINER: That’s right. That’s right. And they’re taking the taxpayer money. They’ve said that they’d prefer to not take taxpayer—to not have taxpayer funds pay for conventions. They get so much—so many corporate funds anyway, $55 million or more in corporate money to pay for this convention, that the Republicans—and the Democrats, frankly—they don’t need the taxpayer money really anymore. This is all soft money. This is a loophole in campaign finance laws. The committees can set up—the parties can set up these unofficial host committees that can raise an unlimited amount of money, and we don’t know who the donors are, because they’re not disclosed until October 15th. We can guess. We see Google has made a massive—not a massive, but a beautiful, impressive innovation center. And the Republican—at the media center, they are the official live-stream provider. They’re doing the same at the Democratic convention. These are all goods and services that they spend a lot of money on, and they have spent $10 million so far lobbying Washington this year to become official sponsors here. So we can ween details, but we don’t know who’s influencing party officials right now for sure.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, why don’t we know this? Who would pass the laws to let us know? The very legislators being feted?
KEENAN STEINER: That’s right, yes. If we wanted more real-time disclosure—basically, the fox is guarding the hen house here. If we wanted disclosure within a reasonable amount of time, you would—you could simply pass a law and say that. And it could be all on the internet, as well, which is something the Sunlight Foundation promotes, to get these donations disclosed online. Why not? I mean, it’s 2012.
AMY GOODMAN: There are expected to be a number of parties that the Koch brothers will be involved with, and some where they’ll—I expect, will be honored. Can you talk about the Koch-funded groups, who the Koch brothers are, why they’re significant here in Tampa?
KEENAN STEINER: Sure. They’re significant because their network is going to spend—they say they’re going to spend $400 million influencing the election. And they have friends. It’s not only them, but they have friends. They’re—the Koch brothers are funding a constellation of groups, including Americans for Prosperity, where one of the Koch brothers will be honored on Thursday, so we know they’re in town. The significance is, both the Koch—both the Koch brothers, other super PAC donors, like Paul Singer, billionaire hedge fund type from New York—he is here having private briefings. You can book private briefings with him, with Condoleezza Rice and other officials. So these super PAC donors are becoming hubs for other big donors to go ahead and meet with these elected officials. And the Koch brothers are funding the Faith and Freedom Coalition, the American Future Fund, all of these anodyne-sounding names that are spending millions of dollars blanketing the airwaves with election ads.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk—
KEENAN STEINER: Um—
AMY GOODMAN: Keep going.
KEENAN STEINER: Oh, and just to talk a little about the Koch brothers, they are the biggest private industry—the biggest private company in—they own the biggest private company in the U.S. They are in energy. They’re in all sorts of fields, oil refining to Brawny paper towels, you name it. And they’ve been big in trying to deregulate the energy sector. They don’t like these tough EPA laws, if you could call them tough. They don’t—and certainly they want a Romney-Ryan presidency to push back—which will be much more friendly for energy interests than the Obama administration.
AMY GOODMAN: In one of your pieces, "Headlining the RNC Convention: Fundraisers, Lobbyists and Shadowy Nonprofits," you talk about a fundraiser for Congressmember Allen West, a Republican here in Florida.
KEENAN STEINER: Yes, yes. He is a tea party member of Congress who has become a very outspoken figure. He is holding this party with—at the Citizens United tent. So, the group Citizens United is the one behind the 2010 lawsuit that opened the floodgates for all of this corporate spending in the first place by sending a case to the Supreme Court that allowed corporations and unions to spend an unlimited amount of money influencing elections. So this group continues to make films critical of President Obama. And that’s the perfect example. You see a member of Congress cozying up with this nonprofit, this shadowy nonprofit. And, by the way, he can raise money for his own campaign at the conventions. There is nothing that says he can’t, so he’s raising $1,000 money in corporate PAC contributions or—at that event.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Rubio was getting around last night. You talk about a party he had. We were in Ybor City at a major event—
KEENAN STEINER: As were we.
AMY GOODMAN: —that was honoring Marco Rubio, among others. Talk about this and the corporations behind it.
KEENAN STEINER: Marco Rubio is everywhere. Last night, you’re talking about a party with a salsa band, where the American Conservative Union, the conservative lobby, put on this party, introduced Marco Rubio like a rock star. The crowd went wild. And the corporations behind it are Microsoft, Progress Energy, the Chamber of Commerce—
AMY GOODMAN: What does Microsoft get out of this?
KEENAN STEINER: Well, Microsoft is—has one of the biggest lobbying presences in D.C., period. And they’re in a battle with other tech and telecom groups in D.C. They need to—they look at what Google is doing. I mean, they’re—Google is their biggest rival. And Google has a tremendous amount of interests before Washington right now. They don’t want tough online privacy laws to be passed. That’s their biggest thing in D.C. right now. With consumers worried about the privacy of their data online, Google does not want tougher laws on that. So, Microsoft and Google and all of these folks in this space all have to compete for legislators’ attention.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you find out who’s sponsoring these parties? They’re not always self-evident, you know, big, flashy—sometimes there’s the big, flashy symbols, but other times it’s very much behind the scenes. But, of course, the people who know, the ones who are being honored, that’s ultimately what matters.
KEENAN STEINER: That’s ultimately what matters. I’ve been asking, how much do the sponsorships cost? And they don’t tell me. None of the—they won’t tell me. But I go in—follow the Sunlight Foundation’s Flickr account. I take photos of every—all of these elephants. And the sponsorship big billboards, when you walk into the bar, has the Chamber of Commerce on there, has Microsoft on it, has Duke Energy on there. So, we’re taking photos of that. We’re keeping track of it all.
AMY GOODMAN: Interesting, last night at the Cuban social club, which is a historic monument in Ybor City, there wasn’t a full description given of how the social club got started by anarchists and socialist Cuban cigar makers, who would put in, what, 25 or 50 cents—my colleague Rob Lorei from community radio station WMNF was on the station—was on the show yesterday describing this—25, 50 cents, and they would get basically socialized medicine. They would take care of their health needs—and not exactly what the Republicans who were celebrating last night in that same space—
KEENAN STEINER: Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, who has lobbied very hard against the healthcare bill. So it’s very ironic, indeed.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us. Last question—
KEENAN STEINER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Thad Cochran of Mississippi; Jerry Moran of Kansas; Deb Fischer, running for Senate in Nebraska—talk about why they are here and what’s been happening.
KEENAN STEINER: They are—it’s going to be a sort of assembly line on a boat near the Tampa Convention Center, a block away. They’re on a yacht. It’s called Starship II, back-to-back-to-back fundraisers for their campaigns. So, this provides—what better opportunity than at the convention, with all the corporations here and all the lobbyists here, than to raise tens of thousands of dollars for your campaign?
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Keenan Steiner, for joining us, as I hold the AT&T gray elephant, just one of the favors given out—and less significant ones, considering the favors the corporations get when they sponsor these parties.
KEENAN STEINER: Absolutely.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for being with us.
KEENAN STEINER: It’s been a pleasure.
AMY GOODMAN: Keenan Steiner is a staff writer for the Sunlight Foundation, covering the lead-up to the convention here in Tampa. Most recent piece, "Did AT&T Rent Out Sprawling Eatery to Influence Lawmakers All Week?" Did they?
KEENAN STEINER: Did they? It looks like they did, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And why is this so significant, right across from the convention center?
KEENAN STEINER: Because the restaurant closed down for the week to the public, just—
AMY GOODMAN: First time in their history.
KEENAN STEINER: First time in their history.
AMY GOODMAN: Fifteen years.
KEENAN STEINER: Fifteen years. They closed down for the week. And just today, the Illinois delegation will be there. AT&T will be sponsoring it. I am going to try to go. I don’t know if they’re going to let me in. Security might be tight. And they—they might not want me there. But I’m going to try.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, these are supposed to be celebrations of democracy, both in Charlotte, coming up, for the Democrats, and here in Tampa. How often are reporters kept out of these events?
KEENAN STEINER: Very often. They don’t let you in. I was once in a boardroom at the National Rifle Association and sitting there for the fundraiser, and I told them I was a reporter, and they escorted me out. So, they don’t want me there, no.
AMY GOODMAN: Keenan Steiner, thanks for providing a little sunlight in this very stormy city.
KEENAN STEINER: It’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, Democracy Now! senior producer Mike Burke questions the former Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell. We’ll talk about voter purges, voter rights, and who’s going to get to vote in the 2012 election. Stay with us.