Big Game? Not for D.C. Crowd

Posted January 24, 2007 at 6:56pm

With Super Bowl XLI set to kick off in the backyard of newly installed Republican National Committee Chairman Mel Martinez, the Miami event would appear to be the perfect setting for a high-dollar fundraiser.

But the Florida Senator won’t even be in the Sunshine State when the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts take the field on Feb. 4.

Martinez isn’t the only lawmaker who appears less than interested in trolling for campaign dollars and schmoozing with donors at such a high-profile event. Sources in the Capitol and on K Street say the glam and glitz of those big-ticket destinations has lost some of its shine in the new era of ethics and lobbying reform, the continuation of a trend in which the fundraising hoopla that surrounded events like the Super Bowl in years past diminished after the passage of the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act in 2002.

One of the few Members to even attempt a Super Bowl event this year will be Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), whose district is home to Dolphin Stadium where the game will take place.

Meek’s event is a multi-day affair, and the $5,000 pricetag includes admission to the Super Bowl, tickets to a Miami Heat game, a golf outing and beach activities, according to sources who have seen the invitation.

In a brief interview Monday, Meek said he doesn’t even plan on attending the game because he doesn’t want to pay the high ticket price (which averages a face value of at least $600). He said he didn’t know how much the event was expected to raise for his campaign committee and that the seats at the game were not in a luxury box but rather scattered throughout the stadium.

The House Conservatives Fund, which is headed by Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.), meanwhile, is holding a fundraising reception the night before the big game at a Miami hotel.

Ticket prices range from $1,000 to $5,000, and among the VIPs expected to make an appearance at a special photo and autograph session before the reception are former vice presidential nominee and ex-Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), ex-Pittsburgh Steelers standout Lynn Swann and former Denver Broncos tackle Sam Brunelli.

Mike Bober, the executive director of the House Conservatives Fund, said the difficulty of finding tickets that cost less than $1,000 makes it prohibitive to offer them as part of an event package.

“We are not offering Super Bowl tickets as part of any of our packages because we’ve found that it’s simply too difficult to find Super Bowl tickets that would work within the confines of what’s appropriate,” Bober said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is hosting donors for a “Super Bowl breakfast” the morning of the game at the Biltmore Hotel, but a spokesman said the breakfast in reality has nothing to do with the event, which Nelson himself will not be attending.

While insiders agreed a fear of appearing too cozy with lobbyists is icing Beltway turnout at the big game this year, Super Bowl fundraisers have been going out of style since the passage of the latest broad package of campaign finance reforms. Prior to BCRA’s passage in 2002, party committees regularly staged high-dollar events around the NFL championship. After the soft-money ban, the party campaign arms decided the yield from such events did not justify the cost and efforts involved.

Skittish lawmakers may be further discouraged by the fact that it is the beginning of an off-election year, when Members and donors alike are still regrouping from the previous cycle. “It’s the natural flow of what happens in the off year,” said Republican fundraiser Carolyn Machado.

But lawmakers and lobbyists fiending to be in Miami for the 6:25 p.m. kickoff for the Bears and Colts don’t have to exchange campaign checks that night.

New gift rules adopted by the House, and passed in a broader package by the Senate, still allow lawmakers and staffers to accept tickets to sports and entertainment events, as long as they reimburse the giver at market value. Previously, tickets to big games and concerts were often priced below the $50 gift limit, so lawmakers and staff could accept them for free.

Reform advocates mounted an intense campaign for the change in response to the local phenomenon of lobbyists buying ticket packages and leasing skybox suites to entertain Congressional decision-makers in high style. “It was an excellent opportunity for lobbyists to ply their wares — by getting Members and staff in these skyboxes and enjoying privileged access to them,” said Public Citizen’s Craig Holman.

Jailed former lobbyist Jack Abramoff alone doled out seats to luxury boxes in the Verizon Center, Camden Yards and FedEx Field for concerts and sporting events.

In 2001, Abramoff leased a corporate jet to fly four staffers — two for then-Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and two for then-Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) — to Tampa to see the Baltimore Ravens take on the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Abramoff last year pleaded guilty to funding the trip as part of his scheme to bribe public officials.

Though the new rules allow Members and staff to pay for the hard-to-come-by tickets, several lobbyists from both parties said they had not heard of anyone seeking them out.

“Nobody wants to be the canary in the coal mine and be the first person who messed up, or was testing the boundaries of what’s permissible,” one Democratic strategist said.

One Republican lobbyist said he typically knows of at least 30 colleagues making the trip for the game. “I don’t know of anyone going down this year,” he said. “It’s a whole new ballgame.”

Susan Davis contributed to this report.