Money Trail: Lobbyists Gone Wild as Obama Remains Silent

Watchdog groups criticize Obama's failure to speak up on convention excess.


Aug. 25, 2008— -- Despite a campaign that attacked corporate and special interest lobbyists as evil and banned their money and participation, Sen. Barack Obama has done little, if anything, about their pervasive, free-spending presence at the Democratic convention in Denver, ethics watchdog groups say.

"I think he could have sent a signal to say I want this tamped down," said Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a political ethics watchdog group.

"But he has not," she said, "so it's party time."

(Brian Ross reports tonight from Denver, on the Money Trail, for World News with Charles Gibson.)

A spokesman for the Obama campaign, Ben LaBolt, said the Senator could not "make changes to this year's convention" because of the "very late end to the primary season."

As a result, lobbyists are once again spending millions of dollars here on gourmet food, top-shelf liquor and private lavish parties for Democratic elected officials who seem more than happy to play the role of world-class freeloaders.

According to Denver's top chefs and caterers, no expense is being spared.

Kevin Taylor, of the Denver restaurant Palette, who says he is the only four-star chef in Denver, says he is booked to prepare delicacies for more than 100 "high end, hush-hush events."

"The demand is over the top, you've never seen anything like this," said chef Taylor, especially for his signature King Crab terrine appetizer with white champagne caviar.

At the Ritz Carlton Hotel, where rooms for Democratic VIP's are now going for $2,000 a night, the executive chef, Andre Jimenez, says even the room welcome gifts need to be elaborate for the 35 top donors and celebrities, including "the rarest peaches in America."

"It's only for the best of the best that we host here," the chef told ABC News.

"We're seeing lobbyists gone wild," said Craig Holman of Public Citizen, a non-profit group that lobbied for the new ethics law enacted last year, aimed at curbing lobbying abuses.

"Many of the new rules also apply to the national nominating conventions, though the public would not know this by looking at the roster of parties being planned by lobbyists and lobbying organizations," Holman wrote in a letter to both Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives.

In fact, one of the country's leading lobbyists, Steve Farber, was chosen by the Democratic party chairman Howard Dean in 2006 to serve as co-chair and chief fundraiser of the Denver host committee that puts on the convention.

Farber, a Denver lawyer, is the founding partner of Brownstein, Farber and Hyatt, one the most prominent and active lobbying operations in Washington.

Farber and his team have persuaded some 141 corporations to contribute more than $50 million to pay the costs of putting on the Democrats' convention.

Outside an elaborate private party he hosted Sunday night at Denver's Museum of Art, Farber told ABC News he does not agree with Obama's attempt to exclude lobbyists and their money from the campaign.

"I respect the position that's been taken by the Senator, but I don't necessarily agree with it," said Farber.

Farber said his efforts, and the corporate contributions, had less to do with access and influence and more to do with "democracy."

Watchdog groups insist Farber's presence is a contradiction of Obama's stated position.

"We will not take another dime from Washington lobbyists," Obama said in a speech June 5, repeating a theme he has main a key to his campaign. "They will not fund my party."

"So Barack Obama, who says that he doesn't want to have any lobbyist money in his campaign, is having a lobbyist bundle money from large corporations, many of which are clients, for the convention that's going to nominate Obama," said Steve Weisman of the Campaign Finance Institute, affiliated with George Washington University.

"We're right back to the pre-Watergate era right now," said Holman of Public Citizen. "This whole federal election campaign law was developed because in 1972, the Nixon administration had set up a slush fund through the 1972 Republican National Convention."

The corporate contributions to finance the conventions are a huge legal loophole in federal election laws that otherwise prohibit corporations from giving money to political campaigns.

"This late primary also impacted the Host Committee's ability to raise funds. We have been supportive of the Host Committee's work to fund the Convention and have encouraged those who support us to support their efforts," the Obama campaign spokesman, LaBolt, said.

LaBolt said the candidate wants to "significantly change the way conventions are funded in the future should he be elected."

"Barack Obama is committed to reforming our political system and getting the special interests out of politics," he said, as the first of hundreds of lobbyist-paid parties were getting underway in Denver.

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