A (blurry) snapshot of influence peddling

Finding out who paid $10,000 to party with Congress members remains a reporting challenge

COLORADO—A CBS News undercover video of a Republican fundraiser earlier this year gave viewers a tantalizing glimpse of a $10,000-a-head political shindig at one of the most exclusive resorts in the country.

The sometimes-grainy footage showed a dozen GOP congressmen in shorts and sandals enjoying a sun-splashed weekend at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida.

“But they didn’t come alone,” Sharyl Attkisson, CBS News investigative correspondent, reported in her March 16 exclusive. Big campaign donors and lobbyists paid handsomely to join the lawmakers, she said, “and got the kind of access ordinary Americans can only dream of: on the golf course; over drinks at the resort bar; at a private beach lagoon.”

Early on, Attkisson reminded viewers that many of the congressional hosts—including Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado—swept into office in 2010 on a promise of getting the fat cats out of Washington and making government more responsive to average Americans. The pay-to-play party in Key Largo on a “recent weekend” was perfectly legal, Attkisson pointed out, but it underscores that this approach to raising campaign money—for Republicans and Democrats (good party hosts, both, as a glance at the Sunlight Foundation’s Party Time! blog confirms)—is still “business as usual.”

The story received plenty of pick-up, though none (that I found) noted the potential ethical questions raised by CBS News’s use of a hidden camera. (I reached out to CBS News to ask about the filming of this story, among other questions. A CBS News spokesperson said Monday that Attkisson was not available to discuss the newsgathering details of her story or whether she planned to do a follow-up).

Still, Attkisson’s story was missing a key piece of information: identities of the guests who had ponied up $10,000, presumably lobbyists and others hoping to influence the lawmakers. Without that, how could constituents of the 12 lawmakers know what industries and interests were courting their Congress members, perhaps securing special favors?

Attkisson couldn’t get the names, and according to my Web search, no other media outlet has reported them, either. Her experience is instructive for journalists in that respect, and for other reasons as well.

Attkisson reported that the Republican National Congressional Committee, which coordinated the fundraiser, refused (perhaps not surprisingly) to give her the guest list. And although Attkisson concluded her segment saying that the RNCC and the lawmakers in Key Largo would have to disclose the donors in Federal Election Commission filings due at the end of March, in fact, the names of these donors can’t quite be pinned down even with these disclosure forms.

While FEC filings list donors’ names, addresses, occupations, employers, donation amounts and dates, the filings don’t clearly detail whether a donation came connected to a particular event (like, to purchase a $10,000 ticket to hang out with lawmakers in Key Largo) or arrived unconnected to a particular function. And even if Attkisson had reported an exact date for the Key Largo confab (she didn’t, noting it was on “a recent weekend”), the dates listed for each donation wouldn’t necessarily be clear indicators (did the Key Largo attendees buy tickets two weeks in advance? A month ahead? The day of or after?)

At the FEC site, I searched both the RNCC’s and Congressman Gardner’s March 2012 campaign finance filings, and saw no obvious traces of the fundraiser in Florida. Gardner’s financial report did not include any individual $10,000 contributions (an individual can only give $2,500 to a candidate, but can give $30,800 to national party committees), and while the RNCC reported $9,349,343.3 in contributions in March, including several $10,000 donations, there was no way to determine who bought a ticket to the Key Largo event.

I put the question—how can we get the attendees’ names—to the campaign-finance experts at the Sunlight Foundation and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Said Sunlight’s Bill Allison via email:

That’s something that, unless you have a very friendly source in the campaign or among the attendees, you can’t get. There is no requirement for campaigns to release the names of people who attend fundraisers, or to indicate that a contribution was given at an event (as opposed to solicited by phone or just sent in over the transom).

Ed Bender, director of FollowTheMoney.org, suggested scanning the disclosure forms for donors who gave around the date of the fundraiser, and then contacting them and asking if they attended—a slow, hit-or-miss process. He also suggested contacting the Congress members’ opponents. “Someone in their pack is probably doing opposition research and may be able to fill in some blanks.”

A call to the campaign office of Gardner’s opponent in Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, State Senate President Brandon Shaffer, wasn’t fruitful. Kim Howard, Shaffer’s campaign manager, said that after the CBS story aired, her staff asked their Washington contacts to see if anyone knew names of the fundraiser attendees, or could identify any lobbyists by studying the video, without luck. The Shaffer campaign office ultimately launched an online petition calling on Gardner to divulge the names of those who attended the fundraiser. Gardner has not done so.

A reporter could spend days poring through FEC documents and making calls, hoping to reach a donor who might cop to attending the fundraiser, but most journalists would say, with reason, that the potential payoff isn’t worth all the effort. No laws were broken, and, after all, would it stun voters to learn their congressman—or president—partied with a list of high rollers? These types of gatherings are not exactly infrequent.

Still, the fallout from the episode offers a small example of how, in the absence of facts—such as names of attendees—partisan interests can fill the void with their own spin.

Attkisson reported nine of the Congress members at the fundraiser sit on the House Committee on Financial Services (CJR counted eight members), and that at least one of the guests was a bank lobbyist. The implication: folks in finance were the ones getting special access to lawmakers in Key Largo.

But that’s not the particular message that Colorado Democrats want to use in their campaign against Gardner; their preferred attack is to portray him as in thrall to the energy industry. So when Westword, Denver’s leading alternative publication picked up on the CBS scoop, tying it to a Gardner speech on energy costs, the item included a statement from the head of Colorado’s Democratic Party that connected the Florida event to Gardner’s known fundraising from oil and gas companies.

And the left-leaning Colorado Independent, in its take on the CBS News report, focused on Gardner’s ties to “oil and gas interests.” That piece noted that Gardner’s Democratic opponent has “questioned the motivation driving Gardner’s pro-drilling energy positions,” and it concluded with a mention of Gardner’s attendance at a fundraiser hosted by BP lobbyists just weeks after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010.

It would be a mistake to make too much of this point. After all, we do know who has made $10,000 donations to the NRCC (that’s in the FEC filings). And, no, knowing whether Gardner was schmoozing these two dozen bankers or this list of oil bigwigs is not likely to move (m)any votes.

Still, this episode highlights the obstacles journalists face in obtaining the information that will allow them both to sort fact from spin and to tell accessible stories about how money works in politics. Reporters—even those who don’t work for neutral publications—are in the business of finding facts that corroborate or complicate the messages that political actors are spreading. Here, they simply can’t.

And with the 2012 campaign on track to be the most expensive in history, telling those stories this year will be more critical than ever.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erred in stating that eight Congress members at the GOP fundraiser in Florida serve on the House Financial Services Committee. CBS News was correct in reporting the number as nine. CJR overlooked Rep. Spencer Bachus of Alabama, committee chair. CJR regrets the error.

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Mary Winter has worked for seven newspapers, most recently the Denver Post, and was assistant managing editor at PoliticsDaily.com. She spent the bulk of her career at the Rocky Mountain News, first in features and later managing the legislative and state government teams. In 2008, she oversaw delegate coverage at the Democratic National Convention for the paper. She wrote a weekly column for the News for 10 years.