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Legacy Content / RULES OF THE GAME

Corporate Presence At Inauguration Is No Change

Watchdogs Give Obama Credit For Limiting Donations, But His Campaign's Small-Donor Focus Is Missing From The Jan. 20 Bash

January 19, 2009

For all President-elect Barack Obama's pledges to keep moneyed interests at bay, big donors and prominent lobbyists have left their stamp on his inauguration.

The Obama inaugural committee is poised to break records with more than $35 million raised so far, and Wall Street executives lead the top donors. Lobbyists barred from giving directly to the inauguration have still managed to spend lavishly on festivities, from inauguration-watching parties in offices that overlook Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrity-studded balls and receptions.

"We've seen corporations and special interests using the inauguration to buy access to the incoming administration," said Craig Holman, legislative representative at campaign finance watchdog Public Citizen. "And I was hoping Obama would change all that."


Inaugural money has poured in from a familiar cast of deep-pocketed financial, entertainment, insurance and real estate industry donors that helped bankroll Obama's presidential campaign.

Holman and other reform advocates do give Obama credit for setting a $50,000 cap on contributions and for barring direct donations not only from lobbyists but from corporations, unions, political action committees, non-citizens and foreign agents. The inauguration committee is also promptly posting both contributors and bundlers on the Internet. Obama officials have stressed that the money is paying for an inclusive, accessible event that will line the Mall with JumboTrons and feature free or low-cost community balls.

"The Obama inauguration guidelines and rules are stronger than any we've ever had before, in terms of transparency and in terms of trying to put some limits on the funding," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, another reform group.

Still, the small-donor surge that gave Obama's campaign fundraising a populist tinge has been absent here. Instead, inaugural money has poured in from a familiar cast of deep-pocketed financial, entertainment, insurance and real estate industry donors that helped bankroll Obama's presidential campaign. The single largest sector paying for the inauguration has been the securities and investment industry, a couple of recent analyses conclude.

Some 118 individuals with Wall Street ties have donated more than $3.6 million to the inauguration, giving an average of $30,534 each, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. A Public Citizen analysis also singled out Wall Street executives as the inauguration's top backers, noting that many have bundled six-figure sums for the event.

These include erstwhile Lehman Brothers senior executive Mark Gilbert, who collected $185,000; Bruce A. Heyman, managing director of Goldman Sachs' Private Wealth Management Group in the Midwest, who raised $50,000; Jennifer Scully, another Goldman Sachs executive who bundled $100,000; and Louis Susman of Citigroup, who rounded up $300,000.

Other noteworthy inauguration donors include liberal financier George Soros; Democratic donor and fundraiser Alan D. Solomont, chairman and CEO of Solomont Bailis Ventures; movie directors Ron Howard, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg; Google chief executive Eric Schmidt; Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer; and Thomas Strickland, executive vice president and chief legal officer of UnitedHealth Group. Maximum $50,000 donors get up to four tickets to the swearing-in, the parade and one of several balls, among other festivities.

Prominent lobbying firms hosting parties include BGR Public Relations, whose "Blue Ball" shindig takes place at the Homer Building on the night of Jan. 20; and Holland & Knight, which is throwing a daytime fĂȘte at Chef Geoff's Downtown. Democratic lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta are hosting a shindig at Tosca on behalf of their respective firms, Heather Podesta + Partners, and the Podesta Group.

The Air Transport Association of America Inc. is using its Pennsylvania Avenue headquarters for a "parade viewing" reception. Corporate and K Street sponsors are also helping underwrite a slew of unofficial parties and balls, including a late-night blowout at the nightclub Ibiza sponsored by the nonprofit group Feeding America and the Recording Industry Association of America. Sponsors of that event, which features vocalist Rihanna, include Comcast, UPS, Bank of America, the legal and consulting powerhouse of DLA Piper, and the law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

The big spending by corporations and lobbyists underscores the need for public financing, not only for political campaigns but for the inauguration, reform advocates say. "It ought to be a public event and paid for with public dollars," said Holman. "That would scale it down and make it more appropriate, and it would deny the opportunity of many private interests to use money to gain special access."

While some reform advocates deplore the special interest money flowing to inaugural events, others say the more important test for Obama will be the ethics rules he establishes for his administration, and whether he follows through on his pledge to fix the presidential public financing system. Noted Wertheimer: "The major tests lie ahead."

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