-- Upstairs in the VIP room of rapper Jay-Z's Manhattan nightclub, Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele cruised around the giant beds and leather couches to mingle with cocktail-toting staffers and friends.
"This is very explicit," Steele yelled, to be heard above the din. "No work tonight!"
But this was all business for some of his state's most heavily regulated companies, as became clear downstairs, where the hip-hop pulsed and generosity flowed from an open bar. A slide projector flashed the party's sponsors onto a darkened wall in rhythmic succession: Pepco, Nextel, Pharma, Lockheed Martin.
Dozens of regulated corporations and government contractors have been lubricating their relationships with the region's most powerful state officials all week, practicing a time-honored tradition of underwriting the fun for national convention delegations.
The election year gatherings are among the last venues in which industry can court state politicians without any legal requirement to disclose what they spend.
That was certainly true in Steele's case. The organizer of the lieutenant governor's party, Washington lawyer Sandy A. Roberts, said he was under no obligation to reveal how much it cost, and therefore, would not.
"Essentially, these parties are a way of saying thank you," said Jennefer Hirshberg, a partner of Alcade & Fay, a lobbying firm that bankrolled an event for the Virginia Republican Party on Wednesday night. Guests were treated to jumbo cocktail shrimp and lobster claws, crispy egg rolls and baked desserts beneath movie props such as model planes from "Top Gun."
"It's all part of the networking and relationship building that lobbying firms in Richmond and at the federal level do," she said.
Public interest groups and campaign finance reform advocates say conventions give businesses the most lobbying bang for their buck. "I'd say there's no better setting than a presidential convention for showing big donors the kind of access money buys," said Common Cause/Maryland's James Browning. "A convention gives donors a chance to lobby under the radar, which is to say, beyond the reach of . . . Maryland's lobbyist ethics law."
Maryland companies took full advantage of that chance this week. They financed Steele's event and donated $75,000 to an affair on the Hudson River waterfront Tuesday night for 400 of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s friends and advisers. That party, which Ehrlich described as a "fun-raiser," featured the governor's favorite Philadelphia soul group, the Stylistics, who charged $20,000 for the appearance, according to Ehrlich aides.
Costs were divided among the Ehrlich campaign, the Maryland Republican Party, Comcast and Constellation Energy Group, parent company to the state's largest utility, Baltimore Gas and Electric Co.
Ehrlich is not shy about making use of such opportunities. Two years ago, he raised $1.6 million, mostly from corporate donors, for a week of inauguration celebrations, including two black-tie galas. That was more than Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D) spent on his 1995 and 1999 inaugural parties combined. Last year, Ehrlich raised $90,000 to subsidize state-sponsored parties during the Preakness Stakes and fought with lawmakers over disclosure of donor names.
The problem with such events, said Tom Hucker, executive director of the public interest lobby Progressive Maryland, is that "it's totally off the books. These donors are the very same companies benefiting from the tax loopholes in the Maryland code."
Ehrlich dismisses talk of influence peddling, saying these events are "just a chance to have fun. Period."
Virginia GOP Chairwoman Kate Obenshain Griffin agreed, saying, "Everyone is just having a good time together here and getting to know each other."
Virginia's Republicans started the week at the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum with a reception for Sen. George Allen, hosted by three of the commonwealth's major corporate citizens: rail company Norfolk Southern Corp.; Smithfield Foods, the world's largest hog producer; and Allen's old law firm, McGuire Woods, which has an affiliated lobbying and consulting business.
Dominion, parent company of the regulated state utility, Virginia Power, sponsored a charity auction at Sotheby's, offering self-portraits by the state's congressional delegation. Koch Industries, an industrial conglomerate that builds highways in Virginia and whose founding brothers are major supporters of libertarian organizations and think tanks, feted Allen at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow Room. And financial giant Citibank opened its famous building on stilts, the 915-foot-high Citicorp Center Building, to honor Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, a 2005 gubernatorial candidate.
By contrast, D.C. delegates had little to enjoy in the way of corporate entertainment. Republicans hold few levers of local power in the Democrat-dominated city.
One of two D.C. receptions this week, underwritten by ClearChannel Adshel, which builds street furniture and does business with the District, honored Democratic Mayor Anthony A. Williams. The other, a lunch at the New York Yacht Club, was paid for by the delegation's own Republican National Committee member, Anthony W. Parker.
With the delegation lacking clout, no big firms have come calling. Instead, D.C. delegates agreed to raise $500 apiece themselves to pay for meals and entertainment, D.C. GOP Chairwoman Betsy Werronen said. The delegation, she said, has settled for continental breakfasts all week.