On a mild evening last September, Citigroup lobbyists mingled with South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn at a rooftop reception — complete with miniature putting greens — as the company hosted a party to honor the third most powerful Democrat in the House and raise money for one of his favorite golf charities.
Health insurers and hospitals, meanwhile, are donating millions to help build an institute in Boston to celebrate the career of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is attempting to overhaul the nation's health care system.
Despite a ban on gifts to lawmakers and limits on campaign contributions, lobbyists and groups that employ them can spend unlimited money to honor members of Congress or donate to non-profits connected to them or their relatives. The public — until now — had little insight into the scope of this largely hidden world of special-interest influence.
Under ethics rules passed in 2007, lobbyists for the first time last year had to report any payment made for an event or to a group connected to a lawmaker and other top federal officials.
USA TODAY undertook the first comprehensive analysis of the lobbying reports and found 2,759 payments, totaling $35.8 million, were made in 2008. The money went to honor 534 current and former lawmakers, almost 250 other federal officials and more than 100 groups, many of which count lawmakers among their members.
The total cost is roughly equivalent to what the U.S. government spends to operate Yellowstone National Park each year.
Most of the money — about $28 million — went to non-profit groups, some with direct ties to members of Congress. In two cases, USA TODAY found, the donations to non-profits associated with a member of Congress came in response to a personal appeal for funds from the lawmaker.
"It's another example of the many pockets of a politician's coat," says Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a watchdog group. The spending amounts to an "end-run" around campaign-finance laws "that are designed to limit the appearance of undue influence," she says.
The money came from companies, trade associations and labor groups that lobby Congress and the government on a range of issues, from seeking a share of last year's $700 billion financial bailout package to trying to shape the debate on climate change.
The donations cover various activities — from a golf tournament that raises money for a lawmaker's non-profit to gifts to the alma mater of a powerful House committee chairman.
"You can still have a gala or something or the other for a charity and earn some favor with members of Congress, which is what the gift ban was put in place to avoid," says Dan Danner, CEO of the National Federation of Independent Business and a veteran Washington lobbyist.
The spending demonstrates the subtle ways that special-interest groups try to sway lawmakers, without making "something as crass as a payoff," says Kenneth Gross, a former Federal Election Commission official.
He credits Congress for mandating the disclosure of the gifts and giving the public another view of the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers.
Invitation to access
The lobbying reports were required by Congress after former lobbyist Jack Abramoff admitted in 2006 that he provided gifts, including a luxury golf trip to Scotland, to then-representative Bob Ney and others in exchange for favors. It is illegal to provide gifts to federal authorities in exchange for official actions, and both Abramoff and Ney, an Ohio Republican, went to prison.
What is more common — and legal — are donations such as the $40,000 AT&T gave in December to the Blanchette Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute, which researches Alzheimer's. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., founded the non-profit, which is named for his late mother, and he is the honorary chairman of its board.
These are "not run-of-the-mill charities," says Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group. "These gifts are another way to gain influence with lawmakers."
Last year, the telecommunication industry gave more than $72,000 to non-profits and charities in honor of Rockefeller, who advocated legislation to provide legal immunity to phone companies that participated in the government's anti-terrorism eavesdropping program. The largest donation came from AT&T. At the time, Rockefeller chaired the Senate Intelligence Committee and helped broker a deal on the bill, which passed last year.
Rockefeller oversees the telecom industry as chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Claudia Jones, an AT&T spokeswoman, declined comment.
Interviews show the West Virginia Democrat made a direct appeal to another company for a donation to the institute. Consol Energy gave $25,000 to the institute in October after Rockefeller sent a fundraising letter to CEO J. Brett Harvey, says Thomas Hoffman, Consol's senior vice president. The company operates coal mines in West Virginia.
"It would be foolish to think we don't take note of the fact when a member of Congress says, 'Hey, I think this is something you ought to support,' " Hoffman says.
Rockefeller spokeswoman Jamie Smith declines to discuss the solicitation but says there is no connection between the gifts and the senator's official actions.
"If some in Washington think giving to a cause Jay Rockefeller cares about will affect his policy views, they surely don't know him," she said in an e-mail. "His policies are based on the merits of an issue and on what's good for West Virginia and the country — period."
Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the top Republican on the House energy committee, asked an energy company to donate to a foundation that bears his name. His daughter-in-law, Amy Barton, is the unpaid director.
Utility giant Exelon gave $25,000 to the non-profit last June and $50,000 in 2006, according to federal records and interviews with company officials.
Barton wrote to Exelon CEO John Rowe, seeking the money, says David Brown, Exelon's top lobbyist. The company is one of the nation's largest producers of nuclear energy. Barton has long advocated on the industry's behalf, pushing for the opening of a nuclear-waste repository at Yucca Mountain, outside Las Vegas.
Barton said he did nothing inappropriate. "There's no personal benefit," he said in an interview. "The money doesn't go to me."
He said he was "very proud" of the foundation's work. The foundation, which funds non-profit groups in his congressional district, donated $375,000 for a $1.2 million Boys & Girls Club in Corsicana, Texas, says Sylvia Waters, a club director. "The bottom line is that there wouldn't be a Boys & Girls Club in Corsicana today if it wasn't for the Joe Barton Family Foundation," Barton said.
Lobbyist ties remain
Despite a pledge by congressional leaders to sever ties between lawmakers and special interests, the reports show lobbyists often give to non-profits associated with the lawmakers who regulate their industries.
Health care groups, for instance, give millions to the planned Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. Pharmaceutical giant Amgen wrote the biggest check — $5 million in December — to the institute, which will honor Kennedy's more than four decades in Congress and promote the study of the U.S. Senate.
Aetna insurance company donated $50,000.
Kennedy, who is battling brain cancer, chairs the Senate's health and education committee and is at work on comprehensive health care legislation. Aetna has engaged in private talks with Kennedy aides on the bill, Aetna spokesman Mohit Ghose says.
Ghose says the donation was unrelated to those negotiations and instead "advances our goal of continuing to take a leadership role in public policy."
Kelley Davenport, a spokeswoman for Amgen, says the donation reflected the company's interest in lauding Kennedy's long career and in helping "young people to become engaged in public service and public policy."
Kennedy, the records show, was the most honored member of Congress, with a total of nearly $6 million. Most of the money went to the Kennedy institute.
Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner and institute trustee Paul Kirk say the Democratic senator has steered clear of potential conflicts of interest with his official duties by not soliciting donations. In total, the organization has collected more than $20 million, according to a January institute news release.
"The principal reason fundraising is going so well is that there is an enormous outpouring of appreciation for Sen. Kennedy's public service," Kirk says.
Amgen spent the most in honor of members of Congress last year, the analysis found. It was among 20 corporations and unions responsible for $17.6 million — or nearly half — of the spending in honor of lawmakers and federal officials last year, the USA TODAY analysis shows. Those groups spent a total of $137.5 million to lobby Congress and federal agencies last year.
Amgen also donated to the Frontier Foundation in honor of Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., who is on the House panel that regulates the drug industry.
The foundation, which provides college scholarships and once was headed by Buyer's daughter, received $385,000 in donations from pharmaceutical companies from 2005 through 2007, according to its IRS filings.
Buyer, who has worked on health policy in Congress for years, helped kill a provision in 2007 opposed by drug companies and broadcasters that would have imposed a three-year ban on advertising new drugs, congressional records show. Consumer advocates, including the Consumers Union, pushed the measure, arguing that aggressive drug pitches unduly sway patients to seek treatment from drugs before their safety records have been established.
During debate by a Commerce subcommittee, Buyer co-sponsored an amendment that stripped the advertising ban from a larger bill overhauling the Food and Drug Administration.
In an interview, Buyer said "there is no connection" between his legislative actions and donations to the foundation. "I'm not an officer. I'm not a board director," he said of his role in the non-profit. "Do I help the foundation? Yes, I do. Do I help other charity groups? Yes, I do."
He referred other questions to foundation officials.
The charity's IRS filing covering the year 2007, the most recent available, listed Buyer's daughter, Colleen, as its unpaid president. Stephanie Mattix, listed as the group's paid secretary/treasurer, is executive director of Buyer's political action committee, Storm Chasers, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Mattix and Buyer told USA TODAY that Colleen Buyer had left the group and referred questions to its president, Brenda Olthoff. Olthoff did not respond to e-mails and calls. Colleen Buyer did not return telephone calls.
The National Association of Broadcasters contributed $25,000 in honor of Buyer to the foundation last year. Amgen donated $15,000.
"I don't think there is a link between a specific vote on drug legislation and contributing to kids going to college in Indiana," says Dennis Wharton, the broadcasters' executive vice president. "We look at where we think it's a worthy cause."
Davenport, Amgen's spokeswoman, says the gift matched the company's "philanthropic mission to improve education."
'Putting and politics'
The donations are a path for lobbyists and company executives to mingle in more intimate surroundings with lawmakers during weekend golf outings and invitation-only dinners.
Last year, lobbyists and the companies that employ them gave more than $802,000 to non-profit groups in honor of Rep. Clyburn, the USA TODAY analysis shows. Those non-profits included the James E. Clyburn Research and Scholarship Foundation and the First Tee of Washington, D.C., which introduces minority and low-income children to golf.
It was First Tee that benefited from a "Putting and Politics" reception for Clyburn and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., on the rooftop of Citigroup's Washington offices in September. The company has received $45 billion in federal bailout money.
Nick Calio, Citigroup's top lobbyist, attended the reception but declined to comment. Gretchen Hamm, the non-profit's executive director, says Citigroup has donated $75,000 over the past three years.
Clyburn, an avid golfer, is a longtime supporter of First Tee. Two years ago, he inserted $3 million into a spending bill to expand the national program at Defense Department facilities. "Why shouldn't children of military families have access to this program as well?" Clyburn spokeswoman Kristie Greco asks.
Each year, Clyburn presides over a golf tournament that raises money for the scholarship program that bears his name. The former schoolteacher created the charity more than 20 years ago to "help deserving students afford a college education" Greco says. It is managed by an independent board and "Congressman Clyburn does not solicit donations," she adds.
But top executives and lobbyists from companies that contribute to the charity can join Clyburn for two days of golfing in South Carolina. Participants have included executives from Duke Energy and Dell, which donated more than $115,000 worth of computer equipment to students in Clyburn's program last year.
"It's not unusual that our folks in government affairs would play golf with members of Congress and support these causes," says Tom Williams, a spokesman for Duke Energy, which gave $5,000 to Clyburn's foundation last year. "It's part of the political process, and it's well within the law."