Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In Plain Sight

It's a shame and a disaster that the Maine press seems constitutionally incapable of fulfilling its fourth estate obligations when it comes to Sen. Susan Collins--and is instead bent on assuming a stenographic, deferential posture toward her at almost every turn.

But it isn't just embarrassing and corrosive. It also represents a squandered journalistic opportunity of the first order. Because Maine's senior senator has been up to some pretty interesting--and frankly rather skeevy--things in recent years. And she hasn't been terribly worried about hiding her tracks.

One area where she's seemed emboldened lately--and not in a good way--is fundraising:

Lobbyists for Verizon Communications, which is refusing comment on a now-confirmed report that the telecommunications giant turned millions of its customers' records over to the National Security Agency, have thrown fundraisers for members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, records compiled by the Sunlight Foundation show.

According to the Political Party Time database, which tracks candidate fundraising events, lobbyists for Verizon Communications have hosted at least five fundraising events for Sens. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Susan Collins, R-Maine. Louis Dupart, of the lobbying firm The Normandy Group, hosted at least three events, two for Mikulski and one for Collins, while Wayne Berman hosted two more for Collins, including a birthday reception in 2010. Both senators voted in 2008 in favor of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which shielded telecom companies, including Verizon, from lawsuits related to an earlier wiretapping controversy.

That lobbyist-drenched birthday party was held at the Fed Ex Townhouse. And if that strikes you as an odd name for a Capitol Hill mansion...you're onto something:

In the past decade, 18 lobbying firms, corporations and labor unions have purchased town houses or leased office space near the Capitol, joining more than a dozen others that had operated there for years, according to real estate records.

Despite a strict new ban on gifts to lawmakers, lobbyists routinely use these prime locations to legally wine and dine members of Congress while helping them to raise money, campaign records show. The lawmakers get a venue that is often free or low-cost, a short jaunt from the Capitol. The lobbyists get precious uninterrupted moments with lawmakers--the sort of money-fueled proximity the new lobbying law was designed to curtail. The public seldom learns what happens there because the law doesn't always require fundraising details to be reported.


Under federal election rules, groups can provide lawmakers free food, drink and a fundraising venue if they disclose that spending as contributions, usually through their political action committees. Those count against the limits of $10,000 per two-year election cycle for PACs and $4,600 for individuals.

Or they can charge the lawmaker, in which case the expense should show up in election records if it exceeds $200.

In theory, this should mean nearly all events are disclosed, allowing the public to learn which special interests have hosted fundraisers for which legislators. In practice, a list of exemptions prevents that.

The FEC allows lobbyists to give their space to federal candidates, or charge a nominal fee, if they also make it available at little or no cost to charities and civic groups.

FedEx provides its town house free to members of Congress and charities, spokesman Maury Lane said, so there is no public record of the fundraisers. Lane said he didn't know how many events were held.

Offering pay-to-play access to DC lobbyists? Check. Corporate-funded parties that stretch campaign finance rules beyond recognition? Check.

Taking big dollars from folks trying to influence legislation? Check check check.

And in truth, there's plenty more where that came from. But to see it you have to be willing to quit looking the other way.

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