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When it comes to partying, corporations ready to kick in

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 2, 2000


PHILADELPHIA -- Invitations for tonight's party honoring Rep. Mark Foley describe it as the "hottest and coolest" celebration at the Republican National Convention.

Latin pop star Jon Secada and his band will perform, along with a new singer said to be "the next Ricky Martin." The 1,500 guests will be treated to salsa dance lessons, cigars and martinis.

The exclusive guest list includes members of Congress, governors, journalists and celebrities such as Heather Locklear and Michael J. Fox.

They will be honoring Foley, R-West Palm Beach, who has become the key liaison between House Republicans and entertainment companies. Foley has become an advocate for entertainment causes in Congress and has boosted the GOP's weak roster of Hollywood stars by attracting big names such as Locklear and Fox.

Who is paying for tonight's $400,000 extravaganza? Big entertainment companies.

The sponsors include the Walt Disney Corp., Time Warner, Viacom, Seagram/Universal Studios, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.

The Foley party is one of many ways this week that big corporations are showing their fondness for the hundreds of elected officials gathered in Philadelphia. Andersen Consulting and two other companies paid for the Florida delegation's breakfast buffet on Monday. DaimlerChrysler hosted a party with the Temptations in honor of Rep. J.C. Watts, the chairman of the House Republican Conference. BellSouth and other big companies hosted a big Mardi Gras party at the Philadelphia Navy pier Tuesday night.

It's not just a Republican phenomenon. You can expect a similar display of corporate spending at the Democratic convention in Los Angeles later this month.

"This goes on at every convention," Foley said. "It's like a Rotary convention with a lot of sponsors."

But critics say it's just another way for companies to win influence with key lawmakers. The companies paying for the big buffets and lavish parties all have a big stake in what's happening in Congress -- or what might happen in the future.

"It's just one more way that corporations and wealthy special interests get their way, and regular folks don't," said Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, a group affiliated with Ralph Nader.

Robert McChesney, author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy, said the big media companies sponsoring tonight's party have a huge stake in future congressional decisions on the Internet, copyright law and antitrust laws.

"They are clearly buying influence," he said.

Federal campaign laws prohibit corporations from making direct contributions to political candidates, but there's no prohibition on the lavish parties that are being held in Philadelphia every night.

"Since you have limits on contributions, this is manna from heaven, this is a big opportunity," said Larry Makinson, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

But Foley said the fact that a sponsor pays for a party does not influence how laws are written. Often, the member of Congress being honored is already a political ally of the sponsoring company.

"I don't think anybody leaves here with any new allegiances," Foley said.

Morna Willens, manager of federal affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America, said her group was not seeking political influence. "It's just a huge party. We're just supporting Mark Foley. He's a close friend of ours. I don't think we need to buy influence with him. He helps all entertainment."

Her group, which faces crucial political decisions on the Napster Web site and other copyright issues, is hosting three similar parties at the Democratic convention.

Mel Sembler, a St. Petersburg developer and finance chairman for the Republican National Committee, said the corporate donations make the convention more affordable for delegates, who usually must pay their own expenses.

He said the contributions allow the party to spend other money on spreading its message.

"If we don't have corporate contributors, we can't accomplish our goals, we can't get our message out," he said.

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