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Party Anyone? How fund-raiser invitations can be used to corner politician
By Darrel Rowland
The Columbus Dispatch
  • Click here to read the orginial story
  • Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000

    Want to read another campaign finance war story involving multi-variable regression analyses - and how with weeks of intense study and several graduate degrees even you might be able to climb this learning curve?

    Then look elsewhere.

    Want to hear how you can use that most basic of CAR animals, Microsoft Excel, in an almost embarrassingly simple way to come up with a fun story that readers will like?

    Then read on.

    But first a warning label: You're going to have to cozy up to a lobbyist.

    For the past quarter century, journalists have developed more and more sophisticated methods of adhering to the adage of Deep Throat to Bob Woodward: Follow the money.

    However, much less frequently do we swim upstream to find out how the money started flowing in the first place.

    For instance, to obtain that mother's milk known as campaign contributions, politicians use a highly specialized technique.

    They ask.

    Since requests for money and invitations to fund-raisers aren't public record, journalists often ignore them.

    We shouldn't.

    Campaign fund-raisers provide the nexus for two very fundamental needs: Lobbyists who need access to politicians, and politicians who need the money that lobbyists can provide.

    We've all read cries of indignation from politicians when a journalist dares to suggest a connection between their actions and campaign contributions.

    Well, the next time you publish those statements, run them alongside quotes from candidates going on bended knee to lobbyists begging for money.

    Here are a few of the fun nuggets on Ohio candidates we mined from this seldom-explored lode:
    • ``Thanks for looking out for me and all your valuable advice,'' said a handwritten note from a Democratic lawmaker to the lobbyist.
    • A Republican representative asked the lobbyist to give ``above and beyond the norm,'' adding: ``I have always greatly appreciated the generous support you and other lobbyists have given me.''
    • Powerful House Speaker Jo Ann Davidson, a Republican from suburban Columbus, assured lobbyists in a thank you letter after the GOP retained its majority that ``our victory is your victory.'' The sentence was underlined with a blue felt-tip pen.
    • Ohio Senate President Richard H. Finan, a Republican from Cincinnati, turned to lobbyists to raise $300,000 less than two months before the crucial 1998 Senate campaigns. In a level of sophistication not seen in previous Ohio elections, each lobbyist's letter was customized to note how much he or she had already contributed - and how much more they could give before hitting the $5,000 maximum allowed to legislative caucuses under state campaign contribution limits.

    How did we get these seldom-seen fund-raiser invitations? That's where it pays to have good friends in low places. We found a lobbyist who keeps a meticulous file of every fund-raising invitation sent out by legislators.

    Finally, this is where we turned to the computer.

    We already knew in a general way that Ohio's 132 legislators, along with each party's legislative caucuses, were asking for more money. Using the lobbyist's files, we wound up compiling information from nearly 400 invitations to lawmakers' fund-raisers from the previous two years - the length of Ohio's legislative session.

    We created a basic spreadsheet with Excel (we have the Microsoft Office 95 package). The first two columns were legislators' names (last name in column A, first name in column B). Then we entered each lawmaker's political party, the location of the fund-raiser, the date, and the minimum contribution requested.

    Once the spreadsheet was set up, it was easy to sum the dollar amounts.

    The result: it would cost the lobbyist almost $80,000 to attend every legislative fund-raiser. And that's not counting ``opportunities'' such as sponsoring a hole at a legislator's golf tournament.

    Since this was a small spreadsheet - a list of about 400 fund-raisers with six rows of data apiece - it was easy to conduct a variety of sorts to see if there was anything else hiding in the data.

    By sorting the dates of the fund-raisers, and comparing those dates with the state legislative calendar, we were able to confirm a longtime suspicion that legislators schedule their money events during the weeks the legislature is in session. In addition, the bulk of the fund-raisers are in Columbus (most at some watering hole within a block of two of the Statehouse), not back in the legislator's district.

    The reason is the same Willie Sutton reportedly gave when asked why he robbed banks: Because that's where the money is.

    But there was yet another aspect to the timing of legislators' fund-raisers.

    Several months before conducting our little CAR analysis, I had covered a committee hearing on Ohio's version of a patients' bill of rights. Even though I arrived on time, there were no seats left because of what one legislator dubbed a ``feeding frenzy'' of lobbyists.

    Monitoring the hearing from an adjoining room that had an audio feed, it quickly became apparent most of the lobbyists were taking shots at a provision giving consumers the right to sue their health insurer for faulty coverage decisions.

    During ensuing weeks, committee Chairman Dale N. Van Vyven, a Republican from suburban Cincinnati, held a series of private meetings with lobbyists on the proposal. In the end, the right-to-sue provision of the bill - which initially had 57 co-sponsors in a 99-member House - was stripped. To the dismay of many consumer groups and patients who had battled their managed care providers, the legislature substituted an untested independent appeals process.

    The behind-the-scenes maneuvering came to mind when I noticed the date of a Van Vyven fund-raiser: Feb. 17. Checking our files revealed the second hearing on the patient protection plan was the same date. Van Vyven literally was trolling for dollars by night with lobbyists who just a few hours before had been seeking favors from his committee.

    Even though Van Vyven was barred from seeking re-election by Ohio's version of term limits, he still took in more than $16,000 that he gave to fellow Republicans.

    Any question the timing of the fund-raiser was connected to the bill?

    Well, Van Vyven had another fund-raiser at the same downtown restaurant about seven months later, after the patient protection plan had been signed into law without the offending right-to-sue clause. Van Vyven's haul this time? Less than $800.

    We found other examples where key legislative developments coincided with legislators' fund-raisers. For example, the day a controversial bill to limit lawsuits came to the House floor for a vote, chief sponsor Rep. Pat Tiberi of Columbus raked in more than $25,000 from a fund-raiser - virtually all from proponents of the tort reform.

    Give you any story ideas for your state capital?

    Our examination of fund-raising invitations demonstrated the serendipity of using CAR - or investigative reporting in general. We were able to show that lobbyists do more than contribute money:
    • A suburban Columbus state representative the past two summers had a lobbyist sponsor a cookout to raise money - alongside the pool at the lobbyist's $450,000 home.
    • One House member asked the lobbyist to find a job for a former staffer. A senator asked the lobbyist to chat with the senator's son about employment opportunities.
    • Candidates often include lobbyists on the ``host committee'' of their fund-raiser. Eight of the 17 hosts for a $150-a-person fund-raiser last year for Ohio Treasurer Joseph T. Deters were lobbyists. On a ``Please join us'' invitation to a June 1999 money-raising event for Ohio Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery, about two dozen of the 62 on the ``us'' list were lobbyists.
    • Senate President Finan not only hit up lobbyists for campaign contributions, but also solicited cash for a ``special events'' fund he used as president of the National Conference of State Legislatures. The heretofore unknown fund had no contribution limits - and no public reporting requirements. Finan told us the special events included a bash in Philadelphia when he took office and a party in Las Vegas when his term was finished.
    • A Columbus representative got help from a business lobbyist drumming up attendance for her December 1999 fund-raiser. Andy Herf of the Ohio Council of Retail Merchants voluntarily sent out faxes urging his fellow lobbyists to ``show your appreciation'' by chipping in $200 for Rep. Amy Salerno as thanks for bottling up a bill tightening regulations on telemarketers. Reporters struggle mightily to find that quid pro quo, where a vote is rewarded with cash, or vice versa.

    Well, this is about as close as it gets, right there in black and white on the fund-raising invitation.

    The story about legislative fund-raisers was part of three-day series on the growing influence of lobbyists in Ohio government. The entire series can be accessed through The Columbus Dispatch's web site: www.dispatch.com. Click on "Special Reports.''

    Darrel Rowland may be reached by e mail at drowland@dispatch.com