The Influence Game in Denver: What Are They Hiding?

Ted Kennedy and Michelle Obama's speeches ignored as lobbyists party on.

September 19, 2008, 11:14 AM

DENVER, Aug. 26, 2008— -- Not even the emotionally charged speech by Sen. Ted Kennedy kept corporate lobbyists from carrying out their multi-million dollar campaign to wine and dine and influence Democratic lawmakers at a series of lavish parties last night in Denver.

Nor did the speech by Sen. Barack Obama's wife, Michelle.

Dozens of private corporate parties continued through the convention hours, ABC News found.

At one large party thrown by large financial institutions, including CitiGroup, Merrill Lynch and UBS, television monitors showed the speeches, but the audio was drowned out by a live jazz band.

Party sponsors attempted to block ABC News cameras from taking pictures of the scene.

(Watch Brian Ross on the Money Trail tonight on ABC World News with Charles Gibson.)

"This is all under the radar," said Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit group that has tried to track the hundreds of convention parties planned by corporations for Democrats in Denver and Republicans in St. Paul.

"That's where money meets power, behind closed doors," said Miller, "the parties and events that are really just set aside for the most elite."

The millions being spent on entertaining and parties is a result of loopholes created by Congress in its own ethics reform law passed last year, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, Miller says.

Outside one gathering last night, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) said it was "his duty" to attend lobbyist and corporate parties.

"You must visit, make sure the food they serve is okay, that it passes the taste test and the liquor is the right vintage. Other than that, it's one's responsibility," Sen. Lautenberg told ABC News, with his tongue apparently in his cheek.

Ethics watchdog groups say there's nothing funny about it.

"It's a very unhealthy, symbiotic relationship between elected officials and lobbyists," Miller said.

For example, while the new law bans certain seated dinners, it does not ban "finger food" being passed, as long as no one is sitting down.

So Denver chefs have been told to find ways to turn their creations into food that can be served on a toothpick or a spoon, but not forks or knives.

Chef Jennifer Jasinski, of Denver's Rioja restaurant, said for her ribs dish, she created "a little spoon just specially made for the convention since they couldn't have a fork."

The new ethics law prohibits parties in honor of one particular member of Congress, but does not prohibit a party for two or three or ten members, or an entire state delegation.

"It's really the same old, same old," said Miller.

"It was Mark Hanna, an old time Republican politico in the late 1800's who said 'there are two important things in politics. The first is money. And I can't remember what the second one is'."

Avni Patel contributed to this report.

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