WASHINGTON, D.C. – As Bruce Springsteen belted out his working-class anthems on the floor of the Verizon Center last May, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chairman of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, was raising money in the privacy of a luxury suite overlooking the stage.
Ten other members of Congress were also asking for cash that night. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was there, too, holding a fundraiser featuring Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the Financial Services Committee. It was the ultimate in multitasking for the politicians – three hours of The Boss for free while raising thousands of dollars for their campaigns and political action committees, or leadership PACs.
DeFazio’s aerie came with 18 tickets and a wet bar, televisions and a private bathroom. His campaign rented it for $2,220 from the American Trucking Associations (ATA), whose legislative agenda focuses heavily on the highway matters that pass before DeFazio’s subcommittee. DeFazio then "sold" individual seats in the box to campaign donors for $2,500 a ticket. ATA’s PAC snapped up one of those seats, which meant DeFazio effectively got the suite for free and an ATA representative got to play host.
At least 19 congressional fundraisers were held at Springsteen’s two Washington concerts last year, almost half of them in boxes rented from companies or organizations with business before the committees of the lawmakers who used them.
C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, D-Md., a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that helps write NASA’s budget, rented his box from a major NASA contractor. Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C., who sits on the Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit subcommittee, rented his from an association of federal credit unions. Rep. John Barrow, D-Ga., who sits on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that helped draft landmark tobacco-safety legislation last year, got his box from one of the world’s leading cigarette makers.
Others who rented from corporations or trade associations included Reps. Ron Kind, D-Wis.; Patrick Murphy, D-Penn.; Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y.; and Adrian Smith, R-Neb.
Skybox meet-ups between lawmakers and lobbyists lost some of their allure in 2004, when the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal attracted public scrutiny. But still they persist. Lawmakers continue to enjoy free and easy access to events that aren’t available to most Americans. And lobbyists and wealthy business leaders are still partying with lawmakers who can directly affect their bottom line. Even after several rounds of campaign finance reform, the events remain legal, including renting boxes from special-interest groups. The only difference is that the corporations and lobbyists don’t provide the boxes for free, as they sometimes did before the Abramoff scandal broke. Instead, they often contribute to the lawmakers’ campaign committees or leadership PACs, which then pay for the cost of the event.
In 2009 alone, at least 108 congressional fundraisers were held at the city’s three premier sports and entertainment venues, according to invitations leaked to the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit devoted to greater transparency in government. The true number is probably higher because most invitations are never made public. Because these events usually are kept private, it’s impossible to determine who rubbed shoulders with the politicians in the skyboxes, how much money was raised or whether some of the tickets might have been used for free by the lawmakers’ friends or families.
ProPublica pieced together information about the Springsteen concerts from campaign finance reports filed by the interest groups and the lawmakers, party invitations archived by the Sunlight Foundation and interviews with the handful of congressional offices and businesses that responded to any of our questions.
Lawmakers and lobbyists insist that legislative decisions aren’t made at these events, but instead are hammered out in the cold light of day based on sober arguments and rock-solid facts presented by lobbyists whose main value is their expertise. But congressional observers say the costly fundraising and socializing that goes on at night inevitably influences "the people’s work" done in congressional offices during the day.
"Unless they’re childhood friends of the congressman, why do they do it?" said former Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley, who represented New Jersey in the Senate for 18 years. "The issue for them is always access and that's what greases the access so when there’s something they need, they'll be able to get in and talk to the (lawmakers or their staff)."
Added Norman Ornstein, a congressional expert at the American Enterprise Institute: "Scoring tickets for Springsteen is no easy task, so giving up a box for an event like that, which is almost like the Super Bowl of concerts, is worth something in and of itself."
Only one lawmaker – Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md. – allowed a staff member to speak candidly about his event.
Cummings rented his box directly from the company that manages the Verizon Center, rather than from a corporation or special-interest group. But the people who filled the box were mostly businesses with interests before the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation subcommittee that Cummings chairs, said Mike Christianson, his spokesman.
"It’s the system in which he has to operate," said Christianson, who said his boss is a longtime supporter of public financing of campaigns. "He doesn't get to unilaterally change that system."
Timothy Lynch, senior vice president for legislative affairs for the American Trucking Associations, which rented its suite to DeFazio, strongly disagrees with those who think that gesture will sway DeFazio on highway legislation.
"At the end of the day, it still comes down to a good argument, a factual argument, and members making a judgment of whether they agree with your argument or not," he said. "When you get to highway reauthorization and other related issues, there’s probably a hundred sub-issues in there, and there’s probably more than a few there that Chairman DeFazio takes a different view on than us."
Internal lobbying documents prepared by defense and aerospace contractor ATK, which hosted Reps. Smith, Murphy and Ruppersberger at Springsteen concerts last year, make it clear that fundraisers are part of the company’s broader strategy to influence public policy.
ATK, also known as Alliant Techsystems, dominates the solid-rocket market crucial to NASA’s launch program and had $700 million in NASA contracts last year. In an October 2008 lobbying document, one of the missions laid out by the company’s Washington-based government relations office is to "promote and protect NASA Programs" by targeting key members of the Appropriations and the Science and Technology committees, including through the use of fundraisers.
The three members of Congress who rented boxes from ATK for Springsteen concerts all sit on committees that affect the company.
One went to Ruppersberger, the Maryland Democrat who sits on the Appropriations subcommittee that helps draft NASA’s budget. While Ruppersberger’s campaign paid ATK $7,000 for the use of the suite, ATK made a $6,000 contribution to Ruppersberger just days before the concert, effectively canceling most of the cost.
In February, after the Obama administration announced plans to scrap NASA’s Constellation program, Ruppersberger immediately told the trade publication Space News that the cuts "came out of nowhere" and could jeopardize national security. Industry analysts say the elimination of the program, which aims to return astronauts to the moon and eventually send them to Mars, could cost ATK hundreds of millions of dollars.
Ruppersberger’s campaign press secretary, Heather Molino, didn’t respond to questions about Ruppersberger’s relationship with ATK or about the Springsteen fundraiser. ATK spokesman Thomas Van Leunen said the company "routinely" makes its box available to its customers and elected officials, but refused to comment further.
ATK also rented a box to Murphy, the Pennsylvania Democrat who sits on the House Technical and Tactical Intelligence subcommittee, which is chaired by Ruppersberger and oversees satellite intelligence programs. ATK is a leading manufacturer of satellite components.
The third ATK box went to Smith, the Nebraska Republican who sits on the House Science and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA’s research and development programs. FEC records indicate that the same day ATK was reimbursed by Smith for the box, the company contributed $2,500 to his campaign, which is what Smith was charging for a ticket to the event. ATK would not say whether the money bought a ticket for the Springsteen concert.
The other lawmakers who rented boxes from companies or trade groups were also strategically positioned to help with the special interests’ legislative goals.
McHenry, the North Carolina Republican who sits on the Financial Services Committee, rented a suite from the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, which has a large stake in the outcome of the financial reform legislation now before Congress. The credit union’s lobbying group also provided food and drinks as an in-kind contribution.
The fundraiser was to benefit his leadership PAC, the House Conservatives Fund.
Kind, the Wisconsin Democrat who sits on the Ways and Means health subcommittee, rented a suite from the American College of Radiology Association PAC, which had a full lobbying agenda when it came to health care reform. Last year, ACR spent $3.7 million on issues such as Medicare, physician reimbursement, imaging utilization reform and the Mammography Quality Standards Act reauthorization, according to lobbying records.
Barrow, the Georgia Democrat, rented his suite from Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris and a dominant player in the global tobacco market. Barrow sits on the Energy and Commerce health subcommittee, which last year helped draft legislation to regulate tobacco products. Altria, which supported the bill, contributed $7,000 to Barrow’s campaign last year, more than offsetting the $6,666.60 the congressman paid for the suite.
Crowley, the New York Democrat, rented his skybox from GE/NBC Universal. Crowley sits on the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee, a primary battlefield for President Obama’s push to repeal offshore tax-saving strategies popular with multinationals like GE.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) held its May 18 fundraiser in a suite rented from the American Resort Development Association. At the time, the association was trying to influence several major pieces of legislation being handled by the Financial Services Committee. That committee is chaired by Barney Frank, the evening’s special guest.
Fair market value?
Federal campaign finance laws require that lawmakers pay "fair market value" for skyboxes, just as they do for tickets to sporting or entertainment events. But it’s almost impossible for the general public to determine whether the rules were followed for the Springsteen concert.
A spokeswoman for Washington Sports & Entertainment, which manages the Verizon Center, wouldn’t disclose what it charged for the lounges, saying only that they usually range from $4,000 to $8,000 for concerts, depending on the size and location of the lounge.
Of the eight lawmakers who rented their boxes directly from the Verizon Center, only one paid below the range: Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, who paid just $1,568. Neither his staff nor the Verizon Center would say why.
The lawmakers who rented skyboxes directly from the Verizon Center and paid within the range included Cummings, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; and Reps. Edolphus "Ed" Towns, D-N.Y.; Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; John Carter, R-Texas; John Hall, D-N.Y.; Baron Hill, D-Ind.; and Leonard Lance, R-N.J. Harkin and Towns held fundraisers at both the spring and fall Springsteen concerts.
Of the lawmakers who rented boxes from corporations, two of the seven paid less than the Verizon Center usually charges. Crowley paid GE/NBC $2,156 and DeFazio paid the trucking associations $2,220. Neither Crowley nor DeFazio responded to questions about the skybox rentals, but Lynch of the trucking associations said the Verizon Center set the price, an assertion the Verizon Center denied.
"I don’t believe that’s something we would do," said Sheila Francis, the spokeswoman for the Verizon Center’s management company.
ProPublica researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.