AT&T is not just a phone call away at the Democratic National Convention.
The telecommunications giant is virtually everywhere, wining and dining delegates and members of Congress with a relentless schedule of luncheons and evening parties.
AT&T has the most high-profile corporate presence in Denver. It is a major sponsor at the convention, it is holding daily lunches for state delegations at the Pinnacle Club, with its startling views of the Rocky Mountain range, and is co-hosting other receptions as well.
On Monday, AT&T threw an exclusive party for the Blue Dogs, the House's moderate and conservative Democrats, at the historic Mile High Station in downtown Denver. Among the guests was House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who in June led Blue Dogs in crafting a compromise bill that shielded telecommunications companies from lawsuits arising from the government's terrorism-era warrantless eavesdropping.
"The presidential conventions give AT&T a unique opportunity to present and display the many leading edge technologies and innovations that we offer to tens of thousands of consumers," AT&T spokesman Michael Balmoris said. "That's why we contribute and participate."
Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Bernards said Hoyer was not aware of any connection between the party and his work on the legislation.
"I'm sure Mr. Hoyer didn't even know who the sponsor was," she said.
AT&T is just one example of how political conventions have become a virtual bazaar where corporations and other special interests can peddle their wares, showcase their products and make a case for their favorite (or least favorite) piece of pending legislation.
"It's our view that every four years people around the globe are watching the U.S. and how we pick a leader," Balmoris said. "AT&T's role as a good corporate citizen is to showcase the elective process in the best light possible."
While new ethics restrictions adopted by Congress prevent corporations or lobbyists from throwing lavish parties to honor key congressional committee chairmen or other powerful members of Congress, the House ethics committee concluded that they can still host a party to salute a group of members.
That's what AT&T did Monday for the Blue Dogs. Outside the Mile High Station, as limousines and SUVs with tinted windows pulled up to the entrance, members of Code Pink, the leftist anti-war group, protested outside, waving signs that said: "Stop government spying."
AT&T’s special interest in Congress
AT&T, like other telecommunications companies, has a continuing interest in congressional legislation. Since 2005, its executives and employees have contributed more than $7.3 million to federal candidates, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute. It also has spent nearly $52 million on federal lobbying.
The intelligence bill was its premier issue this year. About 40 lawsuits have been filed against the telecommunications companies by groups and individuals who believed the Bush administration illegally monitored their phone calls or e-mails. The White House had threatened to veto any intelligence legislation that did not protect the companies from those lawsuits
Hoyer was the point person within the Democratic leadership negotiating the legislation.
Under a compromise struck in the House, a federal district court would review certifications from the attorney general saying the telecommunications companies received presidential orders telling them wiretaps were needed to detect or prevent a terrorist attack. The judge could then dismiss the lawsuit if the certifications were deemed proper.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama backed the House version of the bill.
New ethics rules place significant restrictions on what lobbyists and members of Congress can do a these parties. While the parties are still free to invitees, members of Congress cannot eat sitdown meals — the fare is limited to finger food and drinks — and members must pay if the entertainment is a big name act.
The exception for large groups, however, has infuriated some ethics watchdog groups. On Wednesday, for instance, Visa and US Bank are sponsoring a reception for first-term Democratic members of the House. Many of those freshman members were key in pushing the House to pass the ethics restrictions.
"What (the exception) says, in essence, is lobbyists cannot buy influence by paying for a lavish party to honor one member," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group that advocates tougher ethics and campaign finance laws. "But they can buy influence by paying for a lavish party to honor multiple members."