The Sunlight Foundation’s Political Party Time might be the most important gossip blog you’ll ever read. Sunlight’s reporters collect invitations to political fundraisers, find out who’s hosting and benefitting, and, on occasion, try to duck under the red velvet rope and get inside. We caught up with Sunlight’s Liz Bartolomeo, who’s on the ground in Tampa, to ask about the party scene at the Republican National Convention.
Lauren Feeney: What’s happening behind the scenes of the RNC, off camera and outside the reach of your average delegate?
Liz Bartolomeo: There are three tiers of money and access here in Tampa. We’re dubbing it the pyramid convention. On the bottom you have what you see on TV; the speeches, the delegate breakfasts and lunches. Then you have private events — most of them are evening events hosted by lobbyists, corporations and political fundraisers. There’s a cost to attend them — whether it’s a $50,000 event sponsorship, or a donation to a PAC or a member of Congress. And then on the very, very top, you have the super-donors — members of the finance committee for the Romney Victory fund, super PAC donors, influencers in dark money groups — and they are having very private events that are not on any calendar. We’ve found some of these events and have been told basically to go away and don’t take a picture.
Feeney: Tell us about some of the more outrageous events going on in Tampa.
Bartolomeo: Yesterday there was a “cocktails and cosmetics” reception hosted by the Personal Care Products Council. It was at a salon in the hip Ybor district, and it promised makeup and nail refreshers. That was hosted by an industry council pushing their agenda relating to health and safety regulations for the cosmetics industry.
Today there’s a Patriots for Romney and Ryan event, where the key speaker is Rick Santorum. This is a who’s who of Tea Party members coming out to support Mitt Romney — hosts include Foster Friess, Ralph Reed and Grover Norquist.
Feeney: How does this differ from any other type of industry convention? Aren’t they always about parties and schmoozing and schwag?
Bartolomeo: This is about using money to buy political influence. The public doesn’t have access to this. There are thousands of delegates here, and even they can’t get into a lot of these events. We’re living in the age of super PAC, and that’s been a big news story — we all know about the onslaught of negative ads and the groups behind them. Here in the convention bubble, no one is really talking about it, but influence is being bought here on the ground, too — the public has the right to know.
Feeney: What rules govern these parties and events, and are they being bent or broken?
Bartolomeo: If there’s a member of Congress in attendance or being feted, then they have to abide by the House ethics rules. The rules bar lobbyists from holding events that honor one member of Congress. So you’ll see a lot of these invitations honor a group of members, a delegation, a committee. That’s their way of getting around the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act.
Feeney: How much money is being spent on this convention, and how does it compare to years past?
Bartolomeo: We don’t know the total yet, but I can tell you that in the past, these conventions were designed to be publicly funded, and the convention host committees receive $18 million in public funding to host these events. And Congress gave grants of $50 million per convention for security. On top of that, the Republican convention committee can accept unlimited money from whoever they want. They’re accepting millions of dollars from individuals, corporations, lobbying groups and the like to throw this convention. They do have to report it to the Federal Election Commission, but we won’t know those numbers until after October 15.
The Democrats put a cap on who can give to their host committee — they’re not accepting money from corporations or federal lobbyists, and individuals can only give up to $100,000 .
Feeney: Only? I thought individual donations to campaigns were capped at $2,500.
Bartolomeo: The host committee is not a campaign. It falls under different rules.
Feeney: Your organization keeps track of campaign spending — what are the current totals?
Bartolomeo: We focus on outside spending, so we’re tracking how super PACs and other outside groups are spending money to influence the election through our Follow the Unlimited Money project. This is shocking — I have in my notes from Friday over $280 million in outside spending. We’re now seeing more than $317 million. Super PACs have spent more than $214 million so far in this election, with pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future leading the way. (See a breakdown of super PAC spending here). Then there’s the dark money — the 501(c)(4) groups placing all these issue ads — there are estimates that they could be spending as much as $127 million. We don’t know who those donors are. That information is not disclosed. But it’s only going to keep growing as we near the election.