Donors pay to be part of the party

Inaugural: A high-octane mix of money, influence and power comes together for the festival accompanying the installation of a new administration.

January 21, 2001|By Peter H. Stone

IT WAS THE KIND of solicitation that most Americans would find a tad too pricey. But for 180-odd Republican National Committee "regents"-individuals and corporations who chipped in at least $250,000 to the RNC in 1999-2000 - the recent plea for money was business as usual.

Here's another chance to aid the cause, said the solicitation letter from the Presidential Inaugural Committee - this time, $100,000 to help pay for George W. Bush's inaugural festivities. "It is our privilege to offer you the special additional opportunity to become an underwriter for the 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee," the letter stated.

Regents shouldn't dillydally over their checkbooks, the letter cautioned, because "underwriters will be accepted on a first-come, first-serve basis. ... This opportunity is one that we wanted to offer you first, before it becomes available to the public ..."

In the weeks before the inauguration, $100,000 checks from RNC regents, Fortune 500 companies and their executives, and well-heeled Washington lobbying groups poured into the inaugural committee. Fund-raisers said Wednesday that they had met their target of raising $25 million from these big-league donors. Overall, the committee expected to raise $35 to $40 million to pay for all the inaugural programs and parties.

The inaugural committee is an organization created by congressional statute. The private money it raises subsidizes the bulk of the inaugural activities and is supplemented by services provided by the Armed Forces Inaugural Committee, the General Services Administration, and the National Park Service.

Plenty of perks were available to entice would-be underwriters: 10-ticket packages to one of three inaugural candlelight dinners held on Thursday, a private box for 10 at one of eight inaugural balls planned for last night and admission to other hot events where partygoers caught a glimpse, if not a few moments of chitchat, with the new president and Bush administration heavyweights.

The inaugural committee's list of its $100,000 underwriters is filled with big names from the financial services sector, the oil and gas industry, real estate companies, and computer interests. Many of the underwriters from these sectors have significant legislative or regulatory agendas that they're pushing in Washington. For instance, several oil and gas companies are expecting that the Bush administration will open up new areas for exploration and development in the United States and roll back some of the Clinton administration's environmental curbs.

Several prominent donors are longtime GOP givers and Bush patrons, such as Kenneth Lay, the chairman of Texas-based energy giant Enron Corp., who wrote a $100,000 personal check and had his company chip in another $100,000. Jeffrey Skilling, Enron's president, also gave $100,000.

Carl Lindner, the top banana at the American Financial Group, the conglomerate that owns financially-strapped Chiquita Brands International, was so eager to help that he mailed in a personal check for $200,000. Half that amount was returned to Lindner because the inaugural committee would not accept more than $100,000 from individuals or corporations. But the committee didn't lose out, because American Financial Group sent a second check for $100,000.

K Street-based associations are well represented, including the American Bankers Association, the American Insurance Association, the American Trucking Associations, and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America.

Other Washington business groups and lobbyists opened their wallets, but not as widely: They bought tables for $25,000 at one of the candlelight dinners held Thursday night. President-elect Bush dropped in at all three soirees. The take from the three dinners was expected to be $5 million to $10 million, on top of the $25 million haul from the underwriters.

Republicans hadn't inhabited the White House for eight years, and they said they were ready to party. "It's a great occasion and we're all looking forward to being part of it," said lobbyist Edward M. Rogers Jr., a partner at Barbour Griffith & Rogers, arguably K Street's most powerful all-GOP lobbying shop.

Bipartisan tradition

There's nothing new about corporate and private donors footing the bill for inaugural festivities. It's a bipartisan tradition that lets supporters show their generosity, celebrate victory, and rub shoulders with the elite of the incoming administration.

"There's a historical precedent for using the inauguration as a fund-raising opportunity," said Larry Makinson, a senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks the impact of money on politics.

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