Top donors to lawmakers fund their official portraits


For 24 years, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., has represented the sixth district of Tennessee, rising to become the chairman of the House Science Committee. Now he is retiring, but he is planning to leave his likeness behind in the committee room, in the form of an official portrait paid for by corporate donors such as Lockheed Martin, Microsoft, and Northrop Grumman, which are also top contributors to his campaign fund. These companies have contributed a total of $34,000 to the portrait fund.

Another lawmaker, House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who is slated for an easy win in the midterms is also raising money for an official portrait, with his top campaign donor, Monsanto, helping finance the cost.

But information about donations made for these portraits is not always publicly available. A nonprofit set up by Congress, the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, which is in charge of recording the history of Congress and the Capitol building, accepts donations on behalf of lawmakers. Making donations to this nonprofit also gives donors an additional incentive in the form of a tax deduction. And while there are limits on how much these donors may give to a congressional campaign, there are none on what they may contribute for these portrait funds.

For this article, the Reporting Group used some of the information available in lobbying contributions records known as LD-203  and in FEC campaign expenditure records from Center for Responsive Politics. Sometimes information is missing or is reported in a way that is difficult to trace.

In Rep. Gordon's case, lobbying disclosure forms filed this year show a series of payments to the Capitol Historical Society on his behalf from Nissan North America ($5,000), AT&T ($5,000), Microsoft ($5,000), and Bridgestone ($2,500). Campaign finance records, meanwhile, show his campaign contributed two payments totaling $20,500 (although only one of those is listed as being for a "portrait," the other as a "donation.")

However, when asked, his committee office provided the Sunlight Foundation with a complete list of payments that included several that do not show up on lobbying disclosure records, including contributions from Lockheed Martin ($2,500), Northrop Grumman ($5,000), and Raytheon ($5,000). The total amount collected for the portrait, according to his committee office, was $55,500 and expenses to date are just over $34,000.

All but one of the donors, Nissan North America, that have contributed to the portrait fund are also top donors to Gordon's campaign fund this election cycle. And AT&T's PAC hosted a fundraiser for the congressman in 2009 at the Capitol Hill eatery Johnny's Half Shell.

In the case of Rep. Peterson, Monsanto and a lobbying firm, Russell & Barron, which counts the chemical company as a client, paid a total of $6,000 toward a portrait this year, according to lobbying disclosure records. The company is presently lobbying, among other issues, on the deregulation of Roundup ready alfalfa. Peterson was one of 75 Congressman to sign a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this summer asking the agency to allow Roundup ready alfalfa seeds, which were developed by Monsanto, to be planted this fall, according to a report in Hay & Forage Grower.

Barton and Peterson join the ranks of several other House committee chairmen over the years whose visages have been preserved for posterity thanks to donors who also often are generous contributors to their campaigns.

The checks are written for specific portrait committees typically run by a friend of the lawmaker's. In Gordon's case, it is his former committee  chief of staff, Chuck Atkins. Candidates' campaign funds and leadership PACs may also contribute to these portrait committees. Any funds leftover after the costs of a portrait are paid go to the Society, which conducts educational tours, symposia, and sells momentos and publications on the Capitol.

"We provide an accounting function," said  Ronald Sarasin, president of the Society. Sarasin is a former GOP member of Congress from Connecticut, and later served as a lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association and then president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association before joining the Society.

The Society does not make any records about the portrait committees available to the public nor are they public elsewhere and hence impossible to tell how many lawmakers have a portrait fund or who contributes to the funds.

An investigation by Roll Call earlier this year (subscription required) found that some half a dozen lawmakers had set up portrait funds with the Society from 2004 through 2009, including Reps. John Boehner, R., Ohio; Vernon Ehlers, R., Mich.; Jerry Lewis, R., Calif.; and Don Manzullo, R., Ill.; David Obey, D. Wis., and Nick Rahall, D., W.Va.

In 2007, in response to a request from Rep. Charlie Rangel, D., N.Y., the U.S. Federal Election Commission confirmed that candidates may use their campaign funds or leadership PACs to help finance portraits. The following year, campaign finance records show that his leadership PAC, paid Simmie Knox Portaits $64,500.