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Inaugural Parties, Lobbyists’ Havens

Correction Appended

When President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team put the clamp down on corporate and lobbyists’ contributions for official inaugural activities, the move was praised as another example of the future president cleaning up Washington.

But Obama’s move hasn’t quashed their role in doling out hundreds of thousands of dollars for the inaugural festivities.

Instead of donating cash to the inaugural committee, companies and influence peddlers have opened their pocketbooks to “unofficial” events like the venerable state society balls.

Lobby shops and trade groups are also continuing the practice of throwing their own shindigs for clients and visiting state-based operatives.

“I don’t think you need to be hunkering down and keeping your head down if you simply happen to be a lobbyist in D.C.,” said Gary LaPaille, a former Illinois state lawmaker who is now head of the lobby shop mCapitol Management.

“If there are people who are leery of attending something that is either thrown by a lobby firm or in conjunction with one, then it’s a free world and they can do what they wish,” LaPaille said.

Obama’s team instituted a rule that not only prohibited donations by lobbyists and corporations, it also banned in-kind gifts from companies such as food and trinkets usually found in swag bags given to ball attendees.

Donations from foundations and other nonprofits that take contributions from corporations were also blocked.

“They are being very stiff about their own imposed rules,” said Ken Gross, an ethics expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom. The committee “is out there looking for donations, but most of the donors are corporations and they are turning them away.”

The result: Companies and lobby shops are spending upwards of $100,000 for the sponsorship rights to unofficial inaugural activities.

The Illinois State Society had no trouble finding corporate sponsors for its gala at the Renaissance Hotel on Jan. 19.

Sure to be one of the hottest tickets in town considering Obama’s Illinois roots, the party has nearly 30 corporate and lobby shop sponsors, including Motorola, International Truck and Engine Corp., and lobby shop Smith Dawson & Andrews.

Other lobby shop and law firms listed on the state society’s Web site as sponsors include Holland & Knight; the PMA Group; the OBC Group; Cornerstone Government Affairs; the Livingston Group; Dykema; Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; mCapitol Management; Baker & Hostetler; the Feehery Group and Washington Strategic Consulting.

For the past two inaugurals, Black Tie & Boots, the Texas State Society party, has been one of the hottest sponsorship opportunities.

Organizers were a little concerned about whether they would be able to find companies willing to pay the freight given the economic crisis and the lack of any new White House ties to the Lone Star State.

“We weren’t sure what to expect without a Texan in the White House,” Texas State Society historian Jenifer Sarver said. “Corporate sponsorships have been slower than years past.”

But Sarver isn’t worried.

Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Corp., Nuclear Energy Institute, Edison Electric Institute and Stanford Financial Group Co. are all lead “Lone Star Partners,” with donations up to $50,000. The ball also has lower-tiered sponsorships down to $1,000 for individuals.

Baker Botts, Bracewell & Giuliani, American Airlines, Lockheed Martin, Duke Energy and AT&T Services are among the state’s other sponsors.

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