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'Pop-up lobbying' a new trend in convention influence peddling

The political conventions have always been open season for big money influence peddling. But this year, ever-creative Washington lobbyists have devised a nifty new technique to bypass pesky ethics rules that were supposed to bar them from throwing lavish convention parties for lawmakers.

NBC's Michael Isikoff and Time Magazine's Michael Scherer discuss the ways the GOP convention is bowing to its mega-donors – and new poll numbers that show Mitt Romney trailing badly among the middle class.

The method:  Set up a consulting firm to throw your party and honor your favorite members of Congress. Then sell "sponsorships" to the event for as much as $50,000 a pop, thereby allowing lobbyists and their corporate clients to party it up – and curry favor – with lawmakers  just as they always have.  

Consider a late-night soiree Monday for members of the House and Senate transportation committees. Its official host — as in a Tuesday night "Boots on the Bay" party for the Oklahoma delegation and a Wednesday night “On the Dock by the Bay” party for the congressional “western caucus” – is an obscure entity named “GOP Convention Strategies.”

Who’s behind it? A team of top GOP fundraisers, consultants and lobbyists, including Rick Shelby, an  executive vice president of the American Gas Association, according to a list of principals on the firm’s website.

Calling the GOP convention “a tremendous opportunity to sell your ideas” [and] “highlight your issues,” the firm is offering corporate clients multi-level sponsorships for its convention events (“platinum,”  “gold” and “silver,”  according to one invite) with “prominent billing and signage” or “generous billing and signage” depending on which level is purchased. 

Shelby and other principals of GOP Convention Strategies did not respond to multiple messages. But the firm (which has a sister company set up for next week’s Democratic convention that also includes top D.C. lobbyists) is part of a new phenomenon that is on display at this year’s conventions, allowing a veritable orgy of “influence peddling,” says Craig Holman, a lawyer who has long tracked lobbying and ethics issues for Public Citizen, the D.C.-based watchdog group.   

“I would call these pop-up front companies,” says Holman of the new party consultng firms. “Their whole purpose is to sponsor parties at the conventions that otherwise might be in violation of congressional ethics restrictions. … This is a brand new wrinkle. I’ve never seen this before.”

The problem for the lobbying firms, according to Holman,  is the “Honest Leadership and Open Government Act,” a sweeping reform measure enacted by Congress in 2007 in the aftermath of the conviction of Jack Abramoff in a highly publicized lobbying scandal. It included a rule that forbids members of Congress from “participating” in any lobbyist-sponsored convention “event”  that honors them or where they are the “special guest.” (The excesses didn’t begin with Abramoff, of course. As Holman noted a recent memo, at the 2004 Democratic convention, media companies seeking legislation before Congress threw a $300,000 “Caribbean Beach Bash” for then-Sen. John Breaux, a leading advocate of media interests who left Congress the next year to become … a lobbyist.)

As a practical matter, the lobbyist convention rule has already been weakened through a House Ethics Committee interpretation saying that the ban only applies to parties that honor individual members, not groups of members. Although the Senate Ethics Committee has issued tighter restrictions, the House ruling has opened the door to collective parties such as one this week honoring the “Congressional Yacht Caucus” or the events being thrown by GOP Convention Strategies.

And there are plenty of other examples of big D.C. lobbying interests staging lavish bashes for lawmakers and delegates here in Tampa this week. On tabs for tonight: “Celebrate the Spirits of Tampa,” sponsored by the Distilled Spirits Council, the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Realtors. On Thursday night, “Vote4energy”—a group set up by the American Petroleum Institute—is throwing a “Fueling the Future” bash. And not to be outdone, Google – in partnership with “YG Network,” a group set up by former aides to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — is throwing an “American Innovation” bash at the Tampa Museum of Art.

The net rule, says Holman, is that the reforms of 2007 are perilously close to being out the window. As he wrote in a memo on the eve of the two party conventions, its “lobbyists gone wild.” 

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Chairman of the Republican National Committee Reince Priebus speaks to delegates during an abbreviated session the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Monday, Aug. 27, 2012.