Lobbyists Spent $50 Million Honoring Lawmakers, Report Says

07/12/2011 07:52 pm ET | Updated Sep 11, 2011

Registered lobbyists spent more that $50 million honoring lawmakers at events in 2009 and 2010, according to a report released Tuesday by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to increase government transparency.

The events in the report ranged from charity dinners to university commencement ceremonies, just as long as a member of Congress or an executive branch employee was the honoree. The study also included registered lobbyists' donations to organizations that were founded by lawmakers, or organizations that have lawmakers on the board.

The report goes a long way toward quantifying an underlying layer of influence that runs through political life, where special interests use charitable donations to curry favor with policymakers, while enjoying the tax-deduction from contributing a charitable donation. The data is available for the first time thanks to the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, a bill that expanded lobbying disclosure requirements to include, among other things, that companies and individuals registered to lobby the federal government disclose their donations to charities affiliated with federal officials.

In the past two years, Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has collected more than $800,000 from lobbyists for his scholarship program, the James E. Clyburn Scholarship and Research Foundation. More than $160,000 of that has come from tech giant Dell, Inc., with another $100,000 from AT&T. The telecommunications company is currently seeking regulatory approval for a $39 billion merger with T-Mobile -- Clyburn's daughter, Mignon Clyburn, is a member of the Federal Communications Commission.

Rep. Don Payne (D-N.J.) was the recipient of more than $1 million in honorary funding, largely due to his position on the board of the Discovery Channel Global Education Partnership, which was sponsored by Chevron. The energy corporation was the single biggest donor to charities associated with lawmakers, with $2.9 million in gifts in the two-year period.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was also named the honoree in a number of large gifts that provided seed money for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the U.S. Senate, which will be housed at UMass Boston. A longtime supporter of labor unions, Kennedy's biggest tribute gifts were from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which donated $500,000, and the Service Employees International Union, which gave $250,000 to the project.

But far and away the largest beneficiary of lobbyists' charitable largess was the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF), which received a total of $6.6 million in a two-year period, more than $1 million of it from Walmart. The CBCF's annual legislative conference, held every September in Washington, is very lucrative, largely thanks to corporate sponsorships. But the past year has been tough for the CBCF, which has weathered a nepotism scandal involving Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), and revelations that for at least four years, the group spent much more money on perks and vacations than it did on scholarships.

The amount of detail that companies provide on their lobbying disclosure forms varies greatly, and that variation is reflected in the data Sunlight was able to assemble. Bill Allison, editorial director of the foundation, partly blames poorly designed forms, which he said offer little guidance as to precisely what kinds of descriptions are needed for events.

"Breaking down the categories better is certainly part of the solution," he said, "because there's a lot of leeway in how lobbying disclosures and definitions are written."

"But it would also help if lobbying entities were required to file their forms more than twice a year [as they do now]."

In the meantime, he said, "lobbyists will take advantage of [vague wording] as much as they can."