Inaugural Parties, Lobbyists’ Havens

Posted January 6, 2009 at 6:40pm

Correction Appended

When President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team put the clamp down on corporate and lobbyists’ contributions for official inaugural activities, the move was praised as another example of the future president cleaning up Washington.

But Obama’s move hasn’t quashed their role in doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the inaugural festivities.

Instead of donating cash to the inaugural committee, companies and influence peddlers have opened their pocketbooks to “unofficial” events like the venerable state society balls.

Lobby shops and trade groups are also continuing the practice of throwing their own shindigs for clients and visiting state-based operatives.

“I don’t think you need to be hunkering down and keeping your head down if you simply happen to be a lobbyist in D.C.,” said Gary LaPaille, a former Illinois state lawmaker who is now head of the lobby shop mCapitol Management.

“If there are people who are leery of attending something that is either thrown by a lobby firm or in conjunction with one, then it’s a free world and they can do what they wish,” LaPaille said.

Obama’s team instituted a rule that not only prohibited donations by lobbyists and corporations, it also banned in-kind gifts from companies such as food and trinkets usually found in swag bags given to ball attendees.

Donations from foundations and other nonprofits that take contributions from corporations were also blocked.

“They are being very stiff about their own imposed rules,” said Ken Gross, an ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The committee “is out there looking for donations, but most of the donors are corporations and they are turning them away.”

The result: Companies and lobby shops are spending upwards of $100,000 for the sponsorship rights to unofficial inaugural activities.

The Illinois State Society had no trouble finding corporate sponsors for its gala at the Renaissance Hotel on Jan. 19.

Sure to be one of the hottest tickets in town considering Obama’s Illinois roots, the party has nearly 30 corporate and lobby shop sponsors, including Motorola, International Truck and Engine Corp., and lobby shop Smith Dawson & Andrews.

Other lobby shop and law firms listed on the state society’s Web site as sponsors include Holland & Knight; the PMA Group; the OBC Group; Cornerstone Government Affairs; the Livingston Group; Dykema; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; mCapitol Management; Baker & Hostetler; the Feehery Group and Washington Strategic Consulting.

For the past two inaugurals, Black Tie & Boots, the Texas State Society party, has been one of the hottest sponsorship opportunities.

Organizers were a little concerned about whether they would be able to find companies willing to pay the freight given the economic crisis and the lack of any new White House ties to the Lone Star State.

“We weren’t sure what to expect without a Texan in the White House,” Texas State Society historian Jenifer Sarver said. “Corporate sponsorships have been slower than years past.”

But Sarver isn’t worried.

Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Corp., Nuclear Energy Institute, Edison Electric Institute and Stanford Financial Group Co. are all lead “Lone Star Partners,” with donations up to $50,000. The ball also has lower-tiered sponsorships down to $1,000 for individuals.

Baker Botts, Bracewell & Giuliani, American Airlines, Lockheed Martin, Duke Energy and AT&T Services are among the state’s other sponsors.

Corporate sponsors have also flocked to the newly devised Green Ball, focused on energy and the environment.

Nearly 40 companies, including the Sierra Club, the American Gas Association, the American Wind Energy Association, and the Solar Energy Industries Association are sponsoring the ball.

“This is our first kind of foray into inaugural events as an industry,” said Rhone Resh, head of the solar power group. “Our ball is unique. It’s not just a ball that provides access to the state delegation. It’s a ball that’s designed to bring together industry and the environmental community and nonprofits, for-profits and everybody.”

The event, which is being held at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, had tiered donor sponsorships with the highest going for $100,000.

Event organizers wanted to be inclusive, but did turn away some potential sponsors who did not fit the green energy criteria, according to Resh. “If there were concerns about a company raised, they went through a thorough vetting process,” Resh said.

Not everybody is getting into the inaugural event planning game.

Some firms, including Ogilvy Government Relations and Quinn Gillespie & Associates, are opting out of the inaugural party scene, while others have simply cut back.

“We’re doing less because of the financial situation the economy is in,” said one Democratic lobbyist. “We’re scaling back on everything. This is just one of those areas.”

Others are using their close proximity to the inaugural parade route to host receptions for clients.

The C2 Group, for instance, helped organize a Southern musical “Welcome to the 109th Congress” party at Charlie Palmer Steak in 2005. This year the firm opted to host a smaller event for clients at its offices on 101 Constitution Ave. NW, along the inaugural parade route.

The Air Transport Association of America Inc. is also taking advantage of its 1301 Pennsylvania Ave. NW offices along the parade route to host a “parade-viewing” reception.

K&L Gates, which is not on the parade route, is opening up its first-floor lobby to clients and friends of the firm, serving appetizers and hot chocolate starting at 7:30 a.m.

Others, including Democratic lobbyists Heather and Tony Podesta, are doing a joint effort on behalf of both of their firms, Heather Podesta + Partners and Podesta Group on Inauguration Day.

Following the inaugural parade, the firms are hosting a celebration at Tosca.

They’re not alone. mCapitol Management’s Pat Murphy and LaPaille are throwing two events.

Murphy is continuing his tradition of hosting clients and friends at the Capital Grille during the inaugural parade while LaPaille is renting out the Billy Goat Tavern from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m. on inauguration night.

“I’m a Chicagoan,” LaPaille said. “It’s one of our institutions. President Obama is from Chicago and probably went to the Billy Goat many times.”

Correction: Jan. 12, 2009

The story stated that United and Daley Policy Group are Illinois State Society gala sponsors. The companies are Illinois State Society sponsors only.