Fewer Perks for Inaugural Donors
Big Firms Shut Out, But Executives Give

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 19, 2009

Local executives are opening their wallets to help fund Barack Obama's inauguration festivities, but their rewards are far more meager than those lavished on contributors to the galas of previous presidents.

In the Clinton years, top contributors to the Presidential Inaugural Committee were treated to private black-tie dinners and cocktail receptions, photo opportunities with the president, White House luncheons and other VIP events by way of thanks. Some George H.W. Bush donors ended up getting ambassadorships.

Under the Obama regime, big donors will get a hearty thanks, invites to a few private dinners and the opportunity to shell out more money for tickets to other inaugural events celebrating the nation's newest president.

President-elect Barack Obama has sought to distance himself from typical big donors -- corporations, lobbyists, unions and law firms -- to send the message that special interests will not be able to curry special favors from his administration. He has declared that those big givers are ineligible donors for his election festivities.

That has meant that much of the flow to the committee is coming from business executives, instead of their employers.

In the D.C. area, the chairman of Silver Spring-based Choice Hotels, Stewart Bainum Jr., and his wife, Sandra, each contributed $50,000 to the PIC. Northern Virginia health-care executive Anthony Welters gave $50,000, as did his philanthropist wife, Beatrice. Freddie Mac chairman John A. Koskinen gave $1,000. Douglas Rediker, a former investment banker who works at the New America Foundation in the District, bundled $200,000 from friends and associates.

About 70 percent of PIC contributions have come from wealthy individuals and fundraisers, according to an analysis by the campaign finance group Public Citizen, which said many of these donors are affiliated with financial institutions seeking federal rescue money. Still, the inaugural committee has brought in $41 million -- more than George W. Bush collected for his second inauguration by this time four years ago.

The Obama rules are cutting into access to events for some donors. "My sense is that it is curtailing the ability of lobbyists to attend balls or get tickets to the grandstands on the parade route," said Jan Witold Baran, a partner at the law firm Wiley Rein and finance co-chair for George H.W. Bush's 1989 inauguration.

Under previous administrations, corporate inauguration donors could give up to $500,000. This year, individuals can give a maximum of $50,000, and bundled pools cannot exceed $300,000. For $50,000, a donor will get four tickets to official inaugural events, which include the swearing-in, the parade and one official ball, and two tickets to other events hosted by the inaugural finance committee. Those who pull in $300,000 in bundled contributions will be invited to buy $2,500 "super VIP" ball tickets that will place them on a platform near the president when he stops by the party. There'll be seats for their children at the Kids Inaugural concert Monday night, a table at Ten Penh restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue the day of the swearing-in and parade, and special seating at the public concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

Whether the new Obama rules will maintain a clear line between the new administration and the business community beyond the inaugural remains to be seen. "I think it's a step in the right direction. It makes a nice statement, and I'm glad they did it, but it's nothing more than that," said Bainum, who plans to bring his wife and sons to official inaugural events for which he got tickets as a sponsor.

Bainum said he is under no illusion that the ban against special interests paying for inauguration parties will have a long-term effect.

Donald A. Smith, founder and president of Hard Light Consulting Group, a District construction and information technology firm, gave $50,000. He said the Obama rules have leveled the playing field, allowing a fairly small giver like himself to mix with much bigger contributors.

"I wouldn't have been able to go because my donations would have been dwarfed by large corporations," Smith said. "But most important for me is to be there to see my guy give his speech, take the oath."

He said this is the first presidential campaign and inauguration that he has financially supported.

Cleveland Slade, a Northern Virginia businessman who gave $50,000 to the inaugural committee with his wife, Rose McElrath-Slade, will give away most of his tickets to his employees or family members. He does not expect his donations will have any long-term benefit for his business, but views them as a statement of optimism about the new administration.

"I'm a second-generation minority person who in my lifetime didn't believe I would see something like this," he said. "I wonder sometimes, in this economy, why did I do that?" he said of the donations. "But I'm feeling pretty good about it."

Some District companies have been stymied by Obama's arm's-length approach. A local law firm asked at least five Obama cabinet nominees to attend a brunch in their honor. All the invitations were declined.

"I was going to do a brunch for them, and they all said, do something for me after my confirmation," said a partner in the firm, who requested anonymity because he did not want to get off on the wrong foot with incoming administration officials. "In the past, companies could write checks to the inauguration committee, make in-kind contributions, and now it's completely flipped."

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