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updated 7/29/2004 10:35:02 AM ET 2004-07-29T14:35:02

Since campaign finance laws were tightened, the national political conventions now represent one of the last ways for corporations and labor unions to channel big money to favored politicians. This year is no exception, with dozens of corporations bellying up to the bar to pour millions to Democratic politicians at private, invite-only parties.

It's the hottest trend on the political big money trail.  Lavish parties — most invitation only — in honor of a who's who of powerful Democratic officials.

We found former Governor Howard Dean, D-N.H., dancing at a party paid for by pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

The Neville brothers were flown in for a $600,000 extravaganza honoring southern Democrats, hosted by 30 companies including a subsidiary of MSNBC's parent company, General Electric.

Monday, preparations were underway for the hottest ticket — a bash honoring former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., paid for by a Massachusetts developer.

In all — it's five days, 200 parties, countless millions — all entirely legal. The Republicans do it too, but critics are uneasy.

"It's 24/7 partying, paid for by the special interests… special interests have flocked to these conventions with big money to curry favor and gain influence,” says Fred Wertheimer of the nonprofit group Democracy 21, a non-partisan organization dedicated to making democracy work for all Americans.

Powerful corporations and labor unions also are paying almost $40 million for the convention itself, some buying naming rights, like Motorola for radios, Nextel for cell phones and IBM for computers — all this to nominate a candidate who claims he'll fight against these special interests.

In mid-June, Sen. John Kerry said on a campaign stop in Atlantic City, New Jersey: "This country really should be the land of opportunity for all and special privilege for none."

Yet, here, there is an armada of yachts, limos, and private jets to take care of the priviledged — especially big democratic donors. One group of heavy hitters was treated to a very expensive bus ride to the Kennedy compound — some paid as much as $50,000 to get invited.

Democratic donor John Catsimatides says not just anyone gets a ride: "If you're the carpenter, maybe you won't get invited."

You also won't get invited to a private lunch for the Senate's number-two Democrat, Harry Reid, paid for by gambling and mining companies.

"Critics say that there's too large a presence of special interests at this convention. I would say that if gaming and mining can't do a lunch for a Nevada senator, then we're in real trouble," says Sen. Reid.

As Democrats paint the town red, one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms is throwing an exclusive party at a late night club... including in the bordello room.

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