Last year, four of the country’s biggest military contractors paid $100,000 or more to become top sponsors of a black tie charity gala that honored the influential former chair of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo.
In exchange for that gift, some of the company's top executives were placed at Skelton's table and all were given the chance to address the V.I.P. crowd that included many top military officials. The event benefited a charity for families of fallen soldiers.
This kind of lavish corporate spending on galas bestowing awards on executive or legislative officials is common practice in Washington, D.C., and unlike other forms of giving—such as donations from companies’ political action committees—it is unlimited. But the donations are supposed to be reported if they come from lobbyists or their clients.
In all, lobbying entities—including lobbying firms and their clients—reported spending $50.2 million on so-called honorary and meetings fees over 2009 and 2010, according to a Sunlight Foundation analysis.
Of the over $50 million in these reports, firms employing lobbyists spent $36.3 million honoring members of Congress and $11 million honoring executive branch officials in 2009 and 2010, according to Sunlight’s analysis. In addition, nearly $645,000 went to legislative branch employees—mostly congressional staffers—the reports showed.
These reports, which are filed with the secretary of the Senate and House clerk’s office every six months, do not just include sponsoring an awards dinner where a trade association honors its legislator of the year. They also cover underwriting a conference or retreat held by officials, donating to a lawmaker’s charity and even giving to a nonprofit where a lawmaker sits on the board of directors. These situations, and some others, all fall under what the rule-makers—the Senate secretary and House clerk—call honorary and meeting expenses.
The Sunlight Foundation compiled these reports, finding how much each lobbying entity spent and how much each honoree received over 2009 and 2010. In cases where more than one official was honored, the amount of the gift was divided between the honorees.
The biggest donors
Of all the companies registered to lobby during those years, oil and gas industry giant Chevron spent more than any other—about $2.9 million—honoring officials. The second biggest contributor was Wal-Mart, which donated $2.2 million to nonprofits in honor of lawmakers, including about $1 million over two years to the charitable arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. The retail giant was the CBC Foundation’s largest donor in 2009.
Some of the individual payments are well into the six figures. For instance, Coca-Cola paid $250,000 to sponsor an annual prayer breakfast during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual legislative conference in September 2009. The Distilled Spirits Council of America spent over $160,000 on a lavish annual celebration which inducted Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., a congressional friend to liquor makers, to the George Washington Spirits Society in October 2010, records show. And the seniors’ group AARP spent nearly $200,000 to honor Elizabeth Warren, the leader of the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, at its annual Inspire Awards.
Sometimes the large donations go towards honoring lawmakers directly responsible for overseeing the donor’s industry. As presenting sponsors at last year’s Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors gala, the chief executive of Triwest Healthcare Alliance, a senior executive of BAE Systems, and the wife of SAIC’s chief executive, were placed at a head table beside Rep. Skelton, members of his family, and others, according to a seating chart read by the charity's spokeswoman, Ami Neiberger-Miller. Before losing his re-election last year, Skelton chaired the House committee responsible for overseeing the Department of Defense.
Executives from each company, along with the Oshkosh Corporation—which was a presenting sponsor but did not disclose the gift—were entitled to make opening remarks to the audience, which included chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen. The contractors also got their logos printed on the electronic and print materials for the event.
That kind of visibility is likely good for business, said Scott Celley, a spokesman for the Triwest Healthcare Alliance, which administers the military's healthcare program in Western states. “That’s probably true. It’s certainly a benefit for our top level military officials to know that we do have that kind of engagement—that we are supporting the troops beyond what we are required to do,” Celley said.
But, Celley added, Triwest donates because the money goes to widows and children. “We are pleased to participate with a variety of organizations that support our troops and families. They may or may not have important people attending the events but their mission is to take care of our troops and their families,” he said.
Not all of the top spending entities are corporate, with two of the biggest being the senior group AARP and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal workers, one of the biggest spenders on advertizing to impact the 2010 congressional elections.
Of the $742,000 AARP reported spending to honor officials in 2009 and 2010, $119,000 went to the Alliance for Health Reform, a nonprofit healthcare reform advocacy group founded by Sen. John. Rockefeller, D-W.V.
Half of that money went towards sponsoring two briefings aimed at congressional staffers in the heat of the debate over health care reform. One briefing was a March 2010 event exploring the benefits of patient engagement moderated by one of AARP’s lobbyists, John Rother.
Chevron, the biggest corporate spender honoring officials, sponsored separate dinners for two senior regulators of the oil and gas industry. One gift went to the Environmental Law Institute in honor of EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and another celebrated Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at the Asia Society.
Pharmaceutical companies fete a favorite
The pharmaceutical industry’s favorite senator, if measured by the sector's contributions in 2009 and 2010, is Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The industry lined up to support the nonprofit Alliance for Aging Research last fall when Burr, along with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., was honored.
Although money from Pfizer, Eli Lilly and others was not bound for Burr’s campaign account, some of the benefits of sponsorship look quite similar to many congressional fundraisers. For $20,000, the amount Pfizer paid, the company got ten tickets to a V.I.P. reception with the North Carolina senator before the dinner. For $25,000, the amount that Eli Lilly donated, executives also got to present the award on stage.
“The larger sponsors get more places in the V.I.P. reception and it’s a smaller reception than the large one and so there’s more likelihood that they’re going to be able to make chitchat with prominent people,” Alliance for Aging Research president Daniel Perry said.
In all, four big pharmaceutical companies and the industry’s main trade group chipped in a total of $75,000 for the cause, according to lobbying reports, and the senators’ presence helped attract the money, Perry said.
“I think having a prominent member of Congress to talk about health policy, national needs and so on is more attractive to them than having a doo-wop group,” he said.
Limitations of the lobbying reports
Although compliance with the lobbyist reports has improved since 2008, according to Brett Kappel, a lawyer at Arent Fox who advises companies on rules, it remains a challenge for some lobbying entities.
“There are some organizations that over report and substantially more under reporting,” Kappel said.
"The [lobbyist contribution forms] and the guidance are not absolutely clear-cut,” he added.
Sunlight’s analysis found that many lobbying registrants appear confused with how to fill out the forms. Of the $50.2 million in the reports, there are $2.2 million worth of reports that either appear unnecessary or where it is difficult to tell who is being honored.
In some of these cases, lobbying entities filed reports of donations in honor of politicians who are not covered under the rules—such as state officials and candidates. Other times, organizations instead of individuals were listed as honorees. Many other kinds of errors were made as well.