Billionaire Donors Hide Behind Velvet Curtain at Republican Convention

Deep-pocketed backers 'giving unprecedented sums,' says expert.

ByBrian Ross, Megan Chuchmach, Matthew Mosk and Rhonda Schwartz
August 30, 2012, 1:14 PM

Aug. 30, 2012 — -- When oil and chemical baron David Koch took his seat among the throngs of Republican grassroots activists on the convention floor in Tampa this week, he was making a rare appearance on behalf of the small group of wealthy donors who are bankrolling a good portion of Mitt Romney's bid for president.

For the past several days in Tampa, Koch has been the exception. Most of the deep-pocketed donors -- the ones fundraising consultants call "the whales" -- have spent the convention largely out of sight.

Unlike Koch, they have watched the parade of speakers at the convention podium from high above, in a vast luxury skybox on the fourth and fifth levels of the Tampa Times Forum. Their box was cordoned off by ropes and blocked from public view by a velvet curtain.

The lofty perch, with its leather sofas, flowing liquor, and platters of food, offers a potent symbol of the enhanced role in the 2012 campaign for the wealthiest donors, according to Charles Lewis, an academic and campaign watchdog who has monitored the role of money in politics for years.

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"It's where we are in American politics," Lewis said. "We have billionaires giving unprecedented sums and we have levels of secrecy never seen in the contemporary historic era."

Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law School professor who has been tracking money in the 2012 elections, said he has calculated that 47 individual Americans have given 42 percent of the money in this year's presidential campaign. "We have never had an election, in the last hundred years, that has had this type of money," he said.

That phenomenon has been most evident with a group of $1 million supporters of the Romney campaign called the "Victory Council." While the Romney campaign has kept the identities of his top-level fundraising team a secret, ABC News has been able to track their movements throughout the convention, and has slowly begun to identify them.

This week, the "Victory Council" has gathered in private receptions at museums and in hotel suites during the day, and attended the convention in a private suite at night. Today, they received a morning political briefing from Romney's senior staff, and then were whisked in SUVs to a private luncheon with Romney at the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club.

Reporters were held well back from the scene, as the candidate's motorcade pulled in shortly after 11 a.m. Among those spotted by ABC News was Wilbur Ross, a Palm Beach billionaire who oversees the private equity firm W.L. Ross and Co. The Center for Responsive Politics reported that Ross has given $470,000 in contributions in his time as a political donor.

On Wednesday, the group gathered aboard a 150-foot yacht moored at St. Petersburg Municipal Marina. Those attending included Ron Weiser, the campaign's national finance chairman and the former ambassador to Slovakia under President George W. Bush, Virginia developer Bob Pence, independent oil and gas producer Charles Moncrief, Georgia-based investment advisor Greg Schwartz, Sr., and Richard W. Boyce, a former Bain colleague of Romney's.

Many of the supporters covered their name tags as they exited the event. One of them, when asked his name, began to trot to his waiting SUV.

"Can't say your name?" he was asked by ABC News.

"No. Gotta run -- thank you," he said.

Mel Sembler, a major fundraiser who was an ambassador during both the George H.W. and George W. Bush administrations, took just a moment to answer questions. Asked how much he had agreed to raise for the campaign, he replied, "We're going to raise whatever's needed."

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell attended the yacht party on Romney's behalf. After visiting with the donors, McDonnell stopped to speak with ABC News about the event. He said he had no problem with the fundraising efforts, because they were consistent with the campaign finance laws today.

"Four years ago Barack Obama raised twice as much as the Republicans and this year I think it's going to be an even finance approach to this thing," McDonnell said. "Both sides are going to have equal money to get the message out."

The latest numbers show Romney outpacing Obama in fundraising. The joint fund-raising committee for Romney reported $185.9 million in cash on hand at the end of July, compared to $123.7 million for Obama's joint committee.

McDonnell said that he would favor efforts to require donors to identify themselves, even if they are not required to do so in some circumstances today. "I'd like to see more sunshine on both side … I think that's fair," he said. "When people look at what reforms are needed, I'd like to see more sunshine."

While Koch had the most public presence of the major supporters in Tampa, he has been equally restrained when approached for an interview. Outside a well known Tampa steakhouse, Koch was asked about his role in raising money for the campaign. He hustled to his car silently, a bodyguard jostling the ABC News camera crew that followed.

The billionaire delegate from New York was equally restrained with his remarks around reporters on the convention floor. Earlier this year, Huffington Post reported that he told a conservative gathering in California that he would commit $10 million to seeing President Obama defeated.

How much he has actually given, though, may never be known. Much of his political spending appears to be routed through nonprofit groups, most notably the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, that are not required to disclose their funders.


After this report first appeared, Americans for Prosperity pulled the credentials for ABC News to cover the reception it's holding this afternoon at the RNC.

An official with the group called to rescind the invitation shortly after ABC News published a report noting that Koch refused to discuss his campaign spending.

"We're concerned the coverage will be focused purely on the money and politics story regarding the Kochs," said Americans for Prosperity spokesman Levi Russell.

The group is scheduled to hold a reception called, "A Salute To Entrepreneurs Building America." Koch is being honored at the event.

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