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Paying To Party In Boston producer Jarrett Murphy is reporting this week from the Democratic convention in Boston

Rep. Lincoln Davis, D-Tenn., rose on Wednesday to give the invocation to the crowd of delegates and members of Congress who had gathered in the Harvard Club, 38 stories above Boston's streets.

Speaking in a smooth, soft voice, he asked the room to pray for the country, for its troops overseas — and for others.

"Bless the people who are here, the corporate sponsors, the corporate citizenship they are providing," Davis said.

The corporate citizens for whom those prayers were offered were Eastman Chemical, Bechtel Jacobs and the contractors that run the Oak Ridge nuclear laboratory and the nearby Y-12 nuclear complex. They are only a few of the corporations or lobbying groups footing the bill for events occurring on the fringes of this week's Democratic National Convention.

According to a list provided by the Boston Globe, on Monday, Sovereign Bank held a luncheon and the Interstate Natural Gas Association sponsored a cruise. On Tuesday, General Motors hosted a brunch and NARAL Pro-Choice America ran a late night party. UBS Financial Services was bringing a group to Fenway Park on Wednesday, while the American Gas Association picked up lunch for another group.

The parties and luncheons are just one facet of corporate and lobbyist involvement at the convention. The estimated $39 million price tag for the four-day gathering is being paid in part by a list of sponsors including Bank of America, Raytheon, AT&T and Coca Cola.

Watchdog groups say the sea of private money in Boston, and the one expected to flood New York City for the Republican convention in September, is drowning the spirit of McCain-Feingold and other campaign-finance reform laws.

"It's the Super Bowl of influence peddling, which is troubling and that's true of both conventions," said Celia Wexler, spokeswoman for Common Cause.

Democracy 21 president Fred Wertheimer has called this year's conventions, "two influence-money spectacles."

Corporate and lobbyist spending at the convention takes two forms. There is the sponsorship of the convention itself, and there is the funding of outside parties. The watchdogs blame different legal loopholes for each one.

Democracy 21 says the outside parties, lunches and events are made possible by a flaw in Congressional ethics rules, which bar representatives from accepting gifts but allow corporations or pressure groups to throw parties in honor of members of Congress.

The spending on the convention itself is subject to FEC regulations that watchdogs say have slackened.

Years ago, corporations could legally fund conventions only if they had a local business interest.

In 1994, "they kind of loosened the definition of what constitutes locality," allowing firms that had only a branch or an office in the area to donate, said Ian Stiron at the Federal Elections Commission. In 2003, the FEC eliminated the locality requirement entirely.

Businesses also used to be allowed to give only amounts proportional to what they expected to make from the increase in local tourism spurred by the party meeting.

"Your business had to expect to get something back," Stirton says. That requirement has also been eroded.

Increased regulation of other types of campaign finance, like the regulation of soft money, may be increasing the popularity of convention parties and sponsorship.

"In a way it's a sign of our success," said Wexler, "in that McCain-Feingold shut off other avenues for buying access for special interests, and the only way in is to wine and dine."

There was no wine at the Harvard Club - just coffee, cod and a tasty-looking chocolate desert. Eastman Chemical senior vice president Norris Sneed said the tone of the day was "lobby light."

"We have been an active corporate citizen and we feel that's important," Sneed said, before outlining the corporation's four major areas of concern: energy, exports, public health and homeland security. He talked about Eastman's interest in clean coal technology and its support for federal oversight of chemical industry security.

"We look forward to continuing working with legislators at the state and federal level," Sneed said.

In Cambridge on Monday night, the biotech firm Genzyme hosted a party for the New England delegates. Some local officials came, but no members of Congress were among the crowd of 300.

Spokeswomen Maria Foley said Genzyme was approached by Massachusetts Democrats to host a party, which the company saw mainly as a way to showcase its new "green" building.

"We thought it was a great venue for people from New England to come over," Foley said, "and at the same time to be part of the convention in Boston.

Several other corporate and lobbyist sponsors of events this week were contacted but did not return calls.

The convention is Boston is part of a year of record campaign spending. The Campaign Finance Institute has reported that spending on political conventions will hit a projected $103.5 million this year, up from $8.4 million in 1992.

Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut said the parties and other events did raise concerns of buying access "to some degree," but added, "I don't know how else you do these."

"The public isn't going to pay for these things. People want to mingle, they want to be with each other. There's a synergy when people get together," Dodd said.

"Obviously, I know they're not just doing it because of public service. They're doing it obviously to get some access to people here," he said. "So it's a trade off, a bit. The good that we get out of it outweighs the potential danger."

But Wexler insists that "the taxpayer does end up with the bill for the conventions." The FEC says each party received $14.9 million for their conventions this year. But she echoes Dodd's point that the cost of conventions burdens the system.

"We have to think about conventions, about their meaning," she said, "its cost, how much it should cost, where that money comes from."

At Wednesday's Eastman event, Tom Wheeler, a genial delegate who very much enjoyed the cod, was skeptical that much influence-peddling was going on.

"I don't think we add much in terms of access," he said. "If they want to influence me, they pick up the phone."

Wheeler pointed out that Eastman and the nuclear facilities are among the biggest employers in the state, so the state's congressional delegation is probably already attentive to the company's needs.

Indeed, some of the other parties going on around Boston seemed more like gatherings of the like-minded. For example, at the Americans for Democratic Action luncheon on Monday, Reps. Barney Frank, Jim McDermott and Jerome Nadler didn't appear to need much convincing to be liberal.

Asked if she shared concerns about events like the lunch she was attending at the Harvard Club, Tennessee delegate Beth Crutchfield wondered how much influence she, a school teacher, was supposed to have.

"It's part of the game," she said.

By Jarrett Murphy

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