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Headlining the RNC Convention: Fundraisers, Lobbyists and Shadowy Nonprofits

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Once upon a time, the national Democratic and Republican political conventions were all about writing political platforms and nominating a presidential ticket. Once upon a time, convention planners relied heavily on public financing.

Now, with the main business already settled before the first gavel goes down, conventions are all about partying and access, and the bulk of the show is underwritten by corporate and other private money

Next week's Republican gathering in Tampa features more than 150 events of various kinds – policy talks to late night bashes to campaign fundraisers -- according to event schedules and other invitations we have compiled on the Sunlight Foundation’s just-redesigned Party Time, a comprehensive web site for all of the events happening in Tampa and Charlotte. See any we've missed? You can let us know here.

Here is a rundown of the kinds of events we are going to see next week.

Member fundraisers

Despite new ethics rules passed in 2007, there is no prohibition on campaign fundraising during the conventions, and so lots of lawmakers will take advantage of the presence of D.C. lobbyists, super PACs and corporations to raise money for their elections.

A fundraiser for Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., a national Tea Party figure in a tight reelection race, serves as a perfect example of this recently energized free-flowing money. He is holding a fundraiser at the tent of Citizens United, the conservative nonprofit whose lawsuit went to the Supreme Court in 2010 and opened up the floodgates to corporate and union spending directly on elections. Like many of the organizations its lawsuit helped spawn, Citizens United spends money on videos, TV and web ads attacking candidates (in this case, Democrats) but does not disclose its donors. The West fundraiser, which asks for the maximum $2,500 per election from political action committees, will place Thursday, hours before Mitt Romney is scheduled to accept the party’s nomination. You can see the invitation here.

A Monday night top dollar fundraiser for Sen. Marco Rubio, who will be introducing Romney at the convention, is closed to the public and the press. The venue is a glitzy six-story building dubbed The Cube, seen at the right, a local landmark that's home to a Florida art museum. The money raised at the event—up to $20,000 per head—will be split between Rubio's Senate campaign committee and his leadership PAC. The Rubio fundraiser was first reported by Politico.

Other lawmakers will be fundraising, too. In one example of an efficient use of space, three Republicans -- incumbent Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Jerry Moran of Kansas along with Deb Fischer, who is running for Senate in Nebraska --  will hold back-to-back-to-back fundraisers Monday evening on a boat called the “Starship II Yacht” docked near the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the convention site. You can see the details here, here and here.

Late night parties

There are also late night parties where lobbyists will be schmoozing with some of the convention’s stars. On Monday night bash at Tampa’s Cuban Club, the American Conservative Union and the Republican State Leadership Committee are putton on a VIP-studded party to showcase Hispanic party officials. The "Nuestra Noche" event features “well-known entertainers” DJ Nino and Willy Chorino. Speakers will include: Rubio, and GOP Govs. Brian Sandoval of Nevada, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, and Luis Fortuno of Puerto Rico, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is being featured at multiple outside events throughout the week.

The event is being underwritten by the Chamber of Commerce, which has been spending millions on attack ads to influence the 2012 election, and multi-million dollar lobbying companies Comcast and Progress Energy, among others. Progress recently merged with Duke Energy (taking on Duke's name) to become the largest utility in the country.

Laura Rigas, a spokesperson for ACU, expects at least 1,000 to attend, including other lawmakers, but said over 3,000 people have tried to get a ticket and spots are no longer available.

“We will go by the fire marshal code,” Rigas said, referring to when admissions might be cut off. “We think it’s going to be one of the hottest parties, certainly, of this week,” she added.

Other late-night events are not free and much more exclusive: Take the invitation-only “Full Lid Party Welcoming the Media and Political Elite” on Sunday night, where tickets go for $250 and top sponsorship goes for $2,500. The party, organized by local public relations strategists and bloggers, has its own websiteProgress Energy is also sponoring the party.

Duke will also be co-hosting a party with construction company Fluor on Tuesday night aboard the SS Americana Victory, a World War 2 ship docked near the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Lobbyists honoring officials

House ethics rules bar lobbyists and organizations employing lobbyists from holding events to honor an individual member of Congress. But, they can still put on lavish events that honor a group of members, thanks to the generous way the House Ethics Committee interpreted the 2007 ethics law. The Senate Ethics Committee has stricter rules that prohibit lobbyists from honoring "a group composed solely of members of Congress."

Public Citizen, a group that is pushing for tighter ethics regulations, has criticized the House guidelines. “The clear intent of the rule is to prohibit lobbyists from hosting parties honoring one, two or even 100 members,” the group wrote in a memo.

So, because of this ethical gray area, we will likely see members and staffers brushing up against ethical boundaries at both conventions. In Tampa, the transportation industry will host a party for members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and the yacht lobby will fete the Congressional Boating Caucus

One charitable event raising money for the Rays Baseball Foundation is billed as a Salute to the House and Senate Energy and Commerce Committees at Tropicana Field, the home of the Tampa Bay Rays, a team whose employees have given heavily to Republicans, though they rank towards the bottom of the MLB when it comes to political donations. It’s being underwritten by health insurance giant BlueCross/BlueShield and telecom company Motorola, among others.

Another event, a daytime beach reception on Wednesday with “A/C and a private beach” will feature lawmakers from Western states. The sponsorship packages range from $5,000 to $25,000.

Dark money groups

There is also no doubt that some of the super PACs and dark money groups, which have become so important to the Republicans in the spending war with the Obama campaign, will also be on hand for the convention.

These groups are prohibited by law from coordinating on campaign expenditures with the candidates themselves, and always deny doing so, but that is not stopping at least a couple of groups from making their presence quite clear.

Citizens United, the conservative nonprofit, is putting on five events next week, including an event with former Republican presidential hopefuls Rep. Bachmann, former Sen. Rick Santorum and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. 

Another such group, the American Action Network, has put together an impressive roster of events. Along with its sister nonprofit Hispanic Leadership Network, it is running or sponsoring over a dozen events throughout the week—some of which located at its “American Action Network Pavilion” in Liberty Plaza, located a couple of blocks from the convention site. Overall, the nonprofit raised about $30 million during the 2010 election cycle, much of which was spent on election ads.

Top AAN sponsorship gets you VIP tickets to concerts put on by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Kid Rock and Trace Adkins, a reception with Jeb Bush, a “private dinner,” and other perks—all for a cool $250,000. Sponsorship levels go as low as $10,000, as Politico first reported.

ANN, co-founded by former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman, is not supposed to coordinate its spending with candidates, although it can feature them at fundraisers. The group is hosting is a “Beer & Brats Bash” for the Wisconsin delegation on Aug. 29 at its pavilion at Liberty Plaza, located just a block from the convention site. AAN recently funded mailers aimed at helping two Cheese State freshmen--Sean Duffy and Reid Ribble--retain their seats.

With the convention right around the corner, expect many more updates on the week’s events, and the money behind them, on the Sunlight Reporting Group's blog.

(Photo credit: Rodney May via Flickr)