Lobbyists Help Stevens Charity

Posted March 10, 2004 at 6:37pm

Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) helped christen a foundation bearing his own name Wednesday night that raked in at least $2 million from hundreds of supporters, including dozens of lobbyists with business before his panel.

At $5,000 per ticket, roughly 400 supporters attended a reception and dinner honoring Stevens at the Capital Hilton that was expected to include Vice President Cheney and a few Cabinet officials in the audience.

The invitation boasted 67 Senators, including 28 Democrats, who served as “co-hosts,” although only about two dozen were expected to attend. The event was run by a 14-member steering committee — all of whom are registered lobbyists — that is in charge of the newly minted Ted Stevens Foundation.

Congressional watchdogs have questioned whether such foundations are back-door avenues to lawmakers from lobbyists who contribute to them. And the editorial page of The Washington Post, which first reported about last night’s dinner, labeled such foundation fundraising as “shakedowns” in a March 5 column.

Stevens becomes at least the 18th current Member to have opened a charity or foundation, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.com, although the number is potentially much higher since there is little scrutiny of what nonprofits Members serve on or create.

But Stevens and the foundation’s board insist they have done everything by the book, based on a 12-page letter sent to them by the Senate Ethics Committee. “I have nothing to do with it,” Stevens said about the working of the foundations in a brief interview this week.

Bill Canfield, who worked on two committees for Stevens in the 1980s, including a two-year stint as counsel for the Ethics Committee, serves on the foundation’s board. Canfield said the board has gone out of its way to meet the demands of the Ethics panel, which has instructed the foundation to keep Stevens as far removed from the charity’s activities as is possible.

The Ethics committee told the organizers of the dinner that Stevens’ family members had to pay their own way to Washington for the event and couldn’t be given free tickets. “They’re paying their own way or they’re not coming,” Canfield said. In addition, Stevens could not invite anyone to the event himself.

“He can’t personally write them a note and thank them for attending the dinner,” Canfield added.

Wednesday’s dinner was expected to raise more than $2 million, which the foundation’s board hopes will be enough to run the charity in perpetuity. “It’s our hope and expectation that this will be a one-time deal,” Canfield said of the gala event.

Establishing the foundation, however, does serve as a thank you for Alaskan supporters and lobbyists who have benefited from Stevens’ work over the past 40 years.

The 14 lobbyists on the steering committee for the dinner have a range of clients who have needed Stevens’ aid over the years, including MCI Corp., Alaska Air Group, the Boeing Co., General Dynamics, United Airlines and Disney, according to a review of 2003 lobbying records.

Among those on the steering committee are Rebecca Cox, wife of Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) and a top lobbyist for Continental Airlines, as well as Denny Miller and Wally Burnett of Denny Miller Associates, whose clients include Northup Grumman and FedEx.

Canfield said the event should in no way be “perceived as a threat” to lobbyists who don’t donate to the foundation, and that the event is not that big of a hit on K Street.

He said about 850 people were invited to the dinner, and only about 400 of those folks would attend.

While he could not release the entire guest list before the event, Canfield said he punched in many of the names of those who were expected to be in attendance Wednesday night and that about 10 percent turned up as registered lobbyists in the Senate’s own database.

The primary goal of the foundation is to finance a team of archivists to go through and document several decades’ worth of Stevens’ official papers that are stored in a National Archives site in Suitland, Md. Once the papers are assembled in a reasonable manner, Stevens’ supporters hope to put them in a university in Alaska as well as online.

After that, the foundation hopes to finance charitable work benefiting some issues that Stevens has devoted himself to, particularly female athletics and the Olympics, as well as create an endowment for scholarships for Alaskan students to intern in Washington.

Some lawmakers have set up charities with very specific works in needy communities, such as Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and former Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), who opened the Good Neighbor Fund at the 2000 Republican National Convention with the aim of helping poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has a pair of charities designed to help underprivileged children.

Other lawmakers have set up foundations to fund specific wings at their home-state universities, as has been done by Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Disclosure of who has donated to the charities has varied in the past. Santorum and Watts made the group that ran their nonprofit disclose to the media who donated. DeLay, who has come under fire for having one of his charities sponsor parties at the upcoming 2004 GOP convention, has not released who the donors are to those organizations.

The Stevens foundation was set up a few years ago, Canfield said, and has been “dormant” ever since.

Sensitive to potential criticism, Stevens didn’t want to help raise any money for the charity while he was up for re-election in 2002, and the appropriations season in 2003 was off limits because Stevens wanted to avoid accusations that he was selling earmarks in the spending bills.

“He didn’t want to lend credibility to the argument that people could be at the dinner and hand him a list of projects,” Canfield said.

Stevens has grown increasingly irritated by questions about his personal ethics. His wife, Catherine, is a lobbyist who has worked on appropriations issues.

In December, the Los Angeles Times reported about the rapidly increasing personal wealth of the Appropriations chairman, noting that one $50,000 investment is now worth more than $1 million, and questioned whether those connected to Stevens’ dealings received any favors from the Senator.

Asked about the stories in the interview this week, Stevens angrily cracked a semi-joke: “I think there are too many people who want me dead.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this report.