Nearly two dozen congressional fundraisers held at D.C. Springsteen shows last year

By Marcus Stern and Sebastian Jones
ProPublica Reporters
Friday, April 16, 2010

As Bruce Springsteen belted out working-class anthems on the floor of Verizon Center last May, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Highways and Transit Subcommittee, was raising money in the privacy of a luxury suite overlooking the stage.

Ten other members of Congress were also asking for cash that night. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was there, too, holding a fundraiser featuring Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), chairman of the Financial Services Committee. It was the ultimate in multitasking for the politicians: three hours of the Boss for free while raising cash for their campaigns and political action committees.

DeFazio's aerie came with 18 tickets, a wet bar and a private bathroom. His campaign rented it for $2,220 from the American Trucking Associations, whose legislative agenda focuses heavily on highway matters that pass before DeFazio's subcommittee. DeFazio then "sold" individual box seats to donors for $2,500 a ticket. ATA's PAC snapped up one seat, which meant DeFazio effectively got the suite for free.

At least 19 congressional fundraisers were held at Springsteen's two Washington concerts last year, almost half of them in boxes rented from companies or organizations with business before the committees of the lawmakers who used them.

Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.), a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee that helps write NASA's budget, rented his box from a major NASA contractor. Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who is on the Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit subcommittee, rented his from a federal credit union association. Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), who sits on the Energy and Commerce subcommittee that drafted landmark tobacco-safety legislation last year, got his box from one of the world's leading cigarette makers.

Others who rented from corporations or trade associations include Reps. Ron Kind (D-Wis.), Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Adrian Smith (R-Neb).

Skybox meet-ups between lawmakers and lobbyists came under criticism during the Jack Abramoff scandal in 2004, but they persist. Lawmakers continue to enjoy easy access to events not available to most Americans. And lobbyists and wealthy business leaders still party with lawmakers who can directly affect their bottom line.

After several rounds of campaign finance reform, the events remain legal, including renting boxes from special interest groups. The only difference is that the corporations and lobbyists don't provide boxes for free, as they sometimes did before the Abramoff scandal. Instead, they often contribute to the lawmakers' campaign committees or leadership PACs, which then pay for the event cost.

Last year, at least 108 congressional fundraisers were held at Washington's three premier sports and entertainment venues, according to invitations obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based nonprofit agency devoted to government transparency. The true number might be higher because most invitations are never made public.

Because these events are usually kept private, it's impossible to determine who rubbed shoulders with the politicians or how much money was raised. ProPublica pieced together information about the Springsteen concerts from campaign finance reports filed by the interest groups and the lawmakers, archived party invitations and interviews with the handful of congressional offices and businesses that responded to questions.

Lawmakers and lobbyists insist that legislative decisions aren't made at these events. But congressional observers say the nighttime fundraising and socializing inevitably influences congressional work. "Unless they're childhood friends of the congressman, why do they do it?" said former Democratic senator Bill Bradley, who represented New Jersey in the Senate for 18 years. "The issue for them is always access, and that's what greases the access, so when there's something they need, they'll be able to get in and talk to the" lawmakers or their staff.

Only one lawmaker -- Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) -- allowed a staff member to candidly discuss his event.

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