Beer group opens the tap on the Hill

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 2, 2010

On April 15, a bill backed by the National Beer Wholesalers Association was introduced in the House aimed at limiting direct sales of beer, wine and other alcohol, which the trade group views as a mortal threat to its industry.

Over the next two weeks, the group contributed more than $45,000 to the campaign accounts of Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the committee considering the bill and the guest of honor at a fundraiser during the association's annual Washington meeting this spring. The group hired as an outside consultant Conyers' former chief of staff, who met with members of the chairman's staff.

In addition, the group has donated nearly $300,000 this year to more than 100 House members who agreed to co-sponsor the legislation, often within days of securing the lawmakers' formal support, according to Federal Election Commission records. More than a dozen lawmakers received donations within a week of endorsing the bill, records show.

Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), for example, received a $2,500 contribution three days before the bill was introduced with his name on it. Another co-sponsor, Rep. Pete Olson (R-Tex.), received $8,000 in donations from the group this year, including $2,500 two days after pledging his support.

The donations provide a particularly stark illustration of the tactics used by interest groups to push forward their agenda on Capitol Hill, where legislation is commonly propelled by amassing sponsorships and by doling out campaign contributions to sympathetic lawmakers.

But the donations also come at a time when ethics investigators have focused new scrutiny on the timing of donations and the actions by lawmakers in support of legislation. Eight lawmakers who held fundraisers within 48 hours of a major House vote on a financial regulation bill in December are under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics, sources have said.

Aides to several co-sponsors said the donations from the beer wholesalers had no impact on the lawmakers' views on the legislation. The wholesalers group said the timing of contributions was coincidental and not the result of a concerted strategy.

Michael Johnson, the group's executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, said many of the donations were centered on the group's annual legislative conference in Washington in late April, shortly after the bill's introduction. He noted that some recipients of donations, including Conyers, have not become co-sponsors.

"Really, you have a mixed bag," Johnson said. "You find names of members of Congress who NBWA has supported on the list of co-sponsors as well as on the list of those who are not supporting the legislation. You also find some co-sponsors who have not received any support from NBWA."

A Conyers spokesman declined to comment on the contributions.

Quigley, one of the bill's chief sponsors, said in a statement that he has long supported a "sensible, state-based" alcohol regulation system and that he was not swayed by the wholesalers group's campaign money.

"I haven't changed my views on this issue since coming to Congress, and I've been very open and transparent about accepting support from those who share my views," he said.

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