The Donors: An Inside Look at the Elite Circle of Top Givers

The Legacy Circle includes donors who have given over $500,000.

ByAvni Patel and Emma Schwartz

August 28, 2008— -- Big donors received many special perks at this year's Democratic National Convention but among the most elite group of donors was a new group called Legacy Circle.

Founded by Sen. Charles Schumer (NY) in fall 2006 – shortly before the Democrats won control of Congress – the Legacy Circle is a way to encourage top donors to give to senatorial candidates, said Larry O'Brien, a group chair and lobbyist for the OB-C Group in Washington DC.

The goal, O'Brien said, was that "If you build it they will come type of psychology and it would be my impression that that has in fact worked."

Membership requires that individuals – or couples – give the legal maximum (which is adjusted for inflation) to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) five years in a row or have donated $500,000 over a life time. There are about 60 couples or 120 people in the group.

Members are invited to special events that senators attend throughout the year. For instance, members had a special exclusive VIP event last summer during a DSCC retreat at Martha's Vineyard.

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The Legacy Circle is one of a number of elite donors groups. Those who max out each year to the DSCC are considered Majority Trust donors. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has a similar group, and Republicans have also created special organizations to honor top contributors.

These sorts of individual contributions are increasingly important is because the way the campaign laws are written, individual donations can be greater than corporate PAC donations. The law maxes out corporate donations to party committees at $15,000 a year. In contrast, individual contributions are inflation adjusted and now at $28,500 this cycle -- which means that one individual maxing out is nearly equal to two corporate PACs.

"As that gap widens there is an increasing premium in having the maximum individual contributions made to these organizations," O'Brien said.

During the convention, Legacy Circle members received a special lunch at a restaurant at the J.W. Marriott Tuesday in Denver.

About 30 donors and senators attended, including Sens. Robert Menendez (NJ), Ron Wyden (Ore.), Jim Webb (Va.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Patrick Leahy (Vt.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Bernie Sanders (Vt.) as well as donors like Fred Baron, who helped hide former presidential candidate John Edwards' ex-mistress.

Matthew Miller, spokesperson for the DSCC said that members did not get any favors or special access through the event. "These events only exist to thank them for support they have already given." He added: "That's perfectly legitimate."

Outside the event, a hotel manager told an ABC camera crew not to film the luncheon.

But one donor, Bill Titelman, a Washington lawyer and top Pennsylvania fundraiser, explained why he was there. "I raise some money because I care about the quality of public policy work that gets done in the Congress for the people of the United States," he said. "I've got kids and hope to have grandkids one day and I care about what kind of country we have."

Sen. Leahy put it more simply. "We'd like to stay in a majority," Leahy told ABC News.

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