Loophole Allows Inaugural Spending Binge

WASHINGTON Jan. 19, 2005 -- -- With a price tag of roughly $40 million, boasting a huge fireworks display over the city as well as lavish balls and star-studded concerts, President Bush's inauguration will be a pricey, no-expense-spared event paid for by the country's biggest companies seeking favors and breaks in Washington.

Such corporate wining and dining of public officials and large cash contributions are normally prohibited under ethics laws, but as with the Democratic and Republican conventions, there is an exemption for inaugural week.

"This is one of the last places where you can put up a huge contribution to directly benefit the interests of the president of the United States," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a government watchdog group.

Corporate Dining

General Motors took over one of the city's top restaurants to entertain officials including the secretary of transportation, Norm Mineta, whose decisions on such issues as vehicle fuel efficiency directly affect GM's profits.

The secretary said GM showed him a good time. "It's a time of festivity," Mineta said. "It's inauguration."

Last night, Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods put on their own private dinner at the upscale eatery Charlie Palmer Steak. Both companies have been criticized for being stingy with their employees, having faced lawsuits for requiring off-the-clock work, but seemed more than generous with their official guests, including several members of Congress. The media was kept outside.

"Brought to you by big corporations, wealthy individuals who have direct economic stakes in the government decisions that are going to be made by the Bush administration," Wertheimer said "That's not who should be funding the inauguration of any president of the United States."

But Republicans praised the corporate sponsors as volunteers who save taxpayers the burden of entertaining Washington's elite.

"I think that's what is gratifying about America," said Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Asa Hutchinson. "That you have so many volunteers that come out and contribute so that we can have this type of festivity in our country."

For disclosure purposes, ABC News will be hosting an inaugural brunch reception Friday.

Revolving Door of Politics?

The inaugural events also offer for corporations a chance to showcase the latest offerings from Washington's so-called revolving door between public and private jobs.

A recent example is former Sen. John Breaux, a Democrat from Louisiana who retired from public life after 32 years in Congress to become a lobbyist at one of Washington's best-connected firms, Patton Boggs. In addition, Breaux will join a New York investment fund that manages $5 billion of capital.

Former Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., who oversaw the pharmaceutical industry while chairing the House Energy and Commerce Committee, will now transition into directing lobbying efforts for PhRMA, the industry's top lobbying group.

And powerful Pentagon official Edward C. "Pete" Aldridge, who helped save a jet fighter contract for Lockheed Martin, became a member of the Lockheed board of directors after leaving his post as secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics in 2003.

Much of the revolving door movement has alarmed government watchdog groups.

"I think there has really become a lack of public service in government," said Danielle Brian, executive director of The Project on Government Oversight. "I think that the government has become a place where people go to make contacts, to brush up their résumé, and then go cash in and make money. And I think it's a tragedy."

Maddy Sauer and Jessica Wang contributed to this report.