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.”