RNC convention spending alarms party veterans

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 12:47 AM

Republicans are spending freely on their 2012 national convention in Tampa, burning through money at a pace that has alarmed some veterans of past conventions and causing more potential problems for Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele.

Spending through September topped $636,800, according to figures in a report to the Federal Election Commission. That is 18 times the amount spent in a comparable period four years ago.

At a time when Steele and the RNC have come under fire for what critics call financial mismanagement, the convention spending has raised questions about oversight and financial controls inside the committee.

"I can't imagine what you'd spend $636,000 on at this point," said David Norcross, a former national committeeman from New Jersey. In 2004, Norcross chaired the RNC's Committee on Arrangements, which oversees national conventions. "Is it possible that it's early spending that would have to take place anyway? It's possible, but I can't imagine what it would be."

Doug Heye, the RNC's communications director, confirmed the $636,000 figure for overall spending but said the arrangements committee operates with some independence and therefore he was not familiar with how the money was spent.

According to an FEC report filed in October for the third quarter of this year, the Arrangements Committee spent about $67,000 on salaries, more than $50,000 each for legal consulting and equipment, about $40,000 on rent, almost $40,000 on site evaluation consulting and about $25,000 on hotel management consulting.

Heye said one reason for early spending was a decision by the RNC, based on recommendations from previous convention managers, to accelerate the process of picking a convention city and making arrangements. The RNC named Tampa as the host city earlier this year.

Heye said this has given Republicans the opportunity to make key decisions, such as locking down hotel space. "The convention is months ahead of where it typically was. . . . We've made all arrangements for hotels," he said. "The Democrats haven't selected what city they will be in yet."

Other Republicans, however, said the recommendation to select the host city months earlier than usual was to give the host committee additional time to raise the tens of millions required for their responsibilities and to give local corporations the chance to spread their contributions over two budget years.

"It was never intended that the [Committee on Arrangements] or the party itself needed more time to plan the convention," said one official familiar with the process.

The Committee on Arrangements has neither a chairman nor broad membership. The only member is Louis M. Pope, the Republican National committeeman from Maryland, whom Steele appointed last summer as treasurer.

Steele named Belinda Cook, formerly his assistant, as liaison to the convention. The Washington Times reported last week that her contract calls for $15,000 a month in salary as well as a bonus of $25,000. Cook's son is also on the RNC payroll.

More than half the money spent on rent in the third quarter went to one realty company, according to the FEC report. Two sources said those payments were for a waterfront property in Treasure Island, Fla., that is being used by Cook. The sources interviewed for this story asked for anonymity because they were sharing internal data.

Heye said he could not confirm but did not dispute the rental amount for the house. But he said he thinks the housing contract runs only through January.

E-mail messages seeking comment from Cook and Pope were not returned. A salesperson at the realty company declined to answer questions, citing privacy considerations.

Heavy spending for the 2008 national convention did not start until the summer and fall of 2007. By end of September 2006, the party had spent $35,500 on convention arrangements. That compares with the more than $636,000 spent to date. The total spent on preparations prior to July 2007 was $411,000. The arrangements committee is on pace to spend $2 million to $3 million by summer.

"They're hamstringing the next presidential nominee," said an official familiar with past convention arrangements.

He said money spent now cannot be replaced, potentially limiting the choices the next nominee will have in staging the convention. But another official said the host committee could simply raise even more to make up for any excess spending now.

What's unusual, said Republicans knowledgeable about past conventions, is that the spending has taken place in the absence of a designated convention manager or a chairman of the Committee on Arrangements.

Critics hope convention management and budgeting will be reviewed next year, after the RNC's January meeting.

Cook's contract runs only until mid-January, according to the Washington Times story, which is when Steele's tenure expires. At that time the national committee will select its chairman for the following two years, with growing controversy over whether Steele should seek another term.

Steele has been under fire for his management of the RNC, and some prominent party leaders, including Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, are calling for him to be replaced. Steele has not said whether he will seek another term, but will face competition if he decides to do so.

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