A Jammin’ Fundraiser and Convention Ethics

Posted March 4, 2008 at 6:36pm

At the 2004 Democratic convention, F/S Capitol Consulting lobbyist Tom Hogan helped plan each detail of his firm’s shindig at Prezza restaurant in Boston’s North End.

But this year, with a brand-new and sometimes ambiguous ethics regime in place, Hogan will leave the specifics to someone else.

Hogan’s firm and some of his clients are buying sponsorship packages to a collection of charity events to benefit Friends of New Orleans, a group that is helping fund Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.

These Jam-Balaya concerts at both the Democratic and Republican conventions are attracting a long list of K Street lobbyists, associations and corporations who want to help with the recovery — but don’t want to have to figure out what’s permissible now and what’s not.

“This is tricky. It’s our first go-around, our first convention with the new rules and new environment,” Hogan said. “Each decision you make can trigger potential ethics problems, so if there’s one big clearing house-type event like this, the burden is going to be on those hosts to make sure it stays within the new ethics rules.”

Charity fundraisers do have a little more wiggle room when it comes to ethics issues for Members of Congress and their aides than typical corporate receptions, says Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom partner Ken Gross.

“If it’s a legitimate fundraiser for the charity, then there are exceptions,” he said. “There is some permissibility that would not otherwise occur.” For example, big-name entertainment might otherwise raise questions, he added.

“I’m getting a lot of calls, and I think there’s a lot of confusion about the rules, and that may be one of the ways they deal with them,” Gross said.

In Denver, where the Democrats will be holding forth, the event’s hosts include lobbyist and former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) as well as political consultants James Carville and Donna Brazile (also a Roll Call contributing writer).

In Minneapolis, where the GOP will meet, K Streeter Billy Tauzin, the former Congressman from Louisiana who now runs the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, will play host along with Mary Matalin and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld partner Tommy Thompson, a former Health and Human Services secretary.

FD Dittus’ Gloria Dittus, chairwoman of the Friends of New Orleans board, also is helping to coordinate.

The band, “Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars” includes Pelican State performers Tab Benoit, Cyril Neville, Donald Harrison Jr., George Porter Jr., Anders Osborne, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Vidacovich, Johnny Sansone and Waylon Thibodeaux.

Organizers say that in addition to getting the necessary ethics clearance, the event is drawing wide interest because it gives K Streeters a chance to help a charity while partying in Denver and Minneapolis.

Emily Byram, executive director of Friends of New Orleans, said the charity is seeking guidance from the ethics committees and getting legal advice from outside attorneys.

“We are not listing any Members on our packages that we’re sending out,” she said, referring to a ban on Members attending convention parties held in their honor. But she said they will certainly be invited, especially members of the Louisiana delegation.

In addition to political celebrities, some Hollywood types are planning to come, including “Boston Legal” actor John Larroquette, who has confirmed that he is going to the events in both cities.

After costs are covered, Byram said, the group hopes to contribute $500,000 to the charity. “It’s also a benefit, so part of the money that we’re raising is going to go to Friends of New Orleans but also a number of local charities,” Byram said. “We’re expecting these events to be really big.”

GOP fundraiser Rob Jennings is the producer of both events.

He said the concerts have been in the works since 2006, even before the parties selected Denver and Minneapolis as the locations. “In Minnesota, as soon as they announced that was the location I booked the venue 30 minutes later,” said Jennings, who had scoped out the club: First Avenue.

The Denver event will be at the Fillmore Auditorium. “They’re the equivalent of the 9:30 Club in their towns,” Jennings said. “They’re mid-sized, close-up … rock-club atmospheres.”

Jennings, a Wyoming native who “fell in love with New Orleans” after attending Jazz Fest in 1986, said he expects a cross-section of participants including Members and staff, but also local politicians and heroes of the New Orleans recovery effort.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) plans to attend the concert in Denver, said her campaign spokesman Scott Schneider. “The event will highlight some of the heroes,” he said. “It’s always good to keep attention on the recovery.”

The Jam-Balaya concerts also will be key events at both conventions for the National Restaurant Association, said the group’s spokeswoman, Sue Hensley. The restaurant group, an early sponsor, will coordinate with its members to provide New Orleans-style food and is reaching out to celebrity chefs to add a little foodie dazzle.

“New Orleans is one of the great restaurant towns in the country,” she said. “It was a natural fit for us to support the rebuilding and preserving the culture.”

Hogan of F/S Capitol said one of his energy clients, whose name he didn’t want to mention, plans to become a sponsor and is in negotiations with the event organizers to get its name displayed on trash cans at the venues.

“It’s going to be a good mix of state and federal officials,” Hogan said of the events. “It’s a nice opportunity for industries that do work in both political arenas to see a lot of people.”

And Byram, a native of New Orleans, said it will help keep the ongoing recovery effort in people’s minds. “There’s still a long way to go,” she said. “We want to highlight the progress and talk about how there’s more to be done.”