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K Street Wrestles With Conventions

Republican lobbyist Ari Storch found himself in a conundrum common to practically everyone on K Street: What to do about the political conventions this summer?

As Beltway insiders know, these quadrennial affairs can offer lobbyists and their clients an unparalleled opportunity to schmooze with political elites from across the nation. They also provide the chance to get a corporate brand splashed in front of an audience of decision-makers.

But the events are costly.

In addition to wincing at the tab of hosting parties that run more than $100,000 at the conventions, many lobbying groups fear the bad publicity that comes with feting Members, staff and the party power brokers. Plus, the rules and restrictions, along with nasty rhetoric directed at lobbyists during campaign season, have made it even less appealing, lobbyists say.

As a result, some groups have decided simply to sit out this summer’s Republican convention in Tampa, Fla., and Democratic convention in Charlotte, N.C.

But some lobbyists — such as Storch, who co-founded Artemis Strategies — have found a way in.
“We didn’t just want to do another concert or party. We wanted to leave a mark,” said Storch, who is organizing charity fundraisers in both cities to benefit military organizations such as the Wounded Warrior Project and Operation Homefront.

In Tampa, his Birdies for the Brave golf tournament at TPC Tampa Bay on Aug. 27 has signed on Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Republican Governors Association Chairman Bob McDonnell of Virginia as honorary co-chairmen.

Intel Corp. and SAP, which is one of Storch’s clients, have secured the $100,000 apiece title sponsor slots. And he has extended invitations to all the members of the Armed Services and Veterans’ Affairs panels. Storch said the event is on track to raise its target of $1 million.

“My goal is that nobody is making money off this event,” Storch said. “Every penny we raise is going to charity. We’re even working on getting the power donated for the event, and we’re working with folks to facilitate getting all the food and drink donated.”

A legitimate charity event is one that will pass muster with the Congressional Ethics committees allowing Hill denizens to attend for free.

The rules that govern a company’s — or lobbying group’s — activities at the political conventions are a complex maze of campaign finance laws, House and Senate gift restrictions and an Obama administration executive order. For the Democratic National Convention, the host committee won’t accept cash donations from corporations.

To help his K Street clients navigate these restrictions and exemptions, William Minor, a partner at DLA Piper who specializes in lobbying and campaign finance laws, put together a six-page memo this month.
In it, he advises clients that widely attended events and charity events are among the acceptable opportunities for corporations and trade associations looking to get in on the fun. And take note: The toothpick rules still apply in Charlotte and Tampa. Under the reception exemption, a corporation can also host an event so long as the food served doesn’t amount to a meal.

“We have lots of people asking about it and looking at their options, but I don’t know that many have finalized their plans,” Minor said in an interview. “They are considering ways to do it differently.”
Rather than hosting an event directly, many organizations will buy sponsorships for think-tank or charity events, he added.

But don’t expect former Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) to attend the conventions as a partyer-in-chief. Now the head of the American Chemistry Council, Dooley, whose group recently kicked off an energy-focused lobbying campaign, said the ACC isn’t interested in convention parties.

“Having attended a lot of the conventions in my past life, we made a determination that it’s not a venue that provides us with the most effective opportunity to deliver what is a more policy-oriented agenda,” he explained.

Often considered the life of the party, the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America also plans to be a wallflower this year. “We’ve learned our lessons in the past,” spokesman Jerry Brown said. “Putting those things on in the past have attracted too much attention.”

Four years ago, the House Ethics panel deemed the Recording Industry Association of America’s event not within the exemptions; therefore, House Members and aides were required to pay for their tickets.

But that isn’t deterring the RIAA from events this year. Cara Duckworth Weiblinger, a spokeswoman for the group, said RIAA and the Auto Alliance are presenting sponsors for charity events in both cities that will benefit Musicians on Call. They are working now to secure the talent. (Past headliners have include Kanye West.)

The city’s biggest lobbying practice also plans to get in on the celebrating. Patton Boggs’ Nick Allard said his shop is looking to do something in both cities. “We expect to have some events, to be determined, and they probably will have appropriate themes like celebrating the 50th anniversary of the firm or our former partner, [the late Commerce] Secretary Ron Brown’s legacy,” Allard said.

While some groups might shy away from the conventions, visibility is just what Matthew Shay, president and CEO of the National Retail Federation, is hoping for.

“We are going to be having a hell of a lot of fun, I suspect,” he said, noting that the conventions “bring together a critical mass of policymakers.”

His group plans to do small meet and greets and is considering co-hosting widely attended events, too. “We think it’s important to be there,” Shay said.