Blues legend B.B. King performed Tuesday night at a private affair closed to the public, but NBC managed to get a camera inside — to capture politicians partying, courtesy of some of the biggest companies in America.
We caught up with Rep. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., who was talking to a lobbyist for telephone company MCI.
"Nothing wrong with a few corporate sponsors," said Rep. Wicker.
Was there any influence peddling going on?
"Oh, not any more than any other time," he said.
The parties are all legal. Dozens of companies do it, including NBC and its parent company, General Electric.
Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta attended the party thrown by General Motors.
"It's a time of festivity," he said. "It's inauguration."
And look who we found at a brunch hosted by gambling casinos — Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
"I have no idea who's paying for the lunch, thank you," Scalia told our camera.
This year, limos had to be brought in from New York just to meet the demand. Caterers call the parties more numerous and more grand than ever. Lobbyists call the expense both an investment and a cost of doing business. Critics call it buying access.
"The inauguration for lobbyists is a feeding ground," says Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Even the official inaugural ceremonies are brought to you by a who's who of corporate America.
The top givers are Ameriquest and Marriott, which contributed $750,000 each. Almost 100 companies gave $100,000 or more.
What do big donors get?
Inaugural chairman Jeanne Phillips claims not much more than good tickets and briefly rubbing shoulders with the president. And, she says, the big contributions help make it all possible.
"[Without contributions] we would not have a free parade, we would not have a free fireworks celebration for families, we would not be able to entertain the soldiers who are coming this week," says Phillips.
Still, the most exclusive events are not free. Wednesday morning the president attended a brunch limited to those who gave $250,000. Wednesday night, it's three candlelight dinners that cost $2,500 per plate.
But one congressman has no use for complaints about corporate-funded celebrations.
"Anybody who is against that obviously must be a communist," says Rep. James Gibbons, R-Nev.
It's a snapshot of Inauguration 2005 — a celebration of democracy and deep corporate pockets.