The influence diaries: Dispatches from the GOP National Convention

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Michael Beckel/Center for Public Integrity


The Center for Public Integrity is sharing its reporting from the GOP convention with Check back regularly for updates. An inside look at influence-peddling in Cleveland.

Editor’s note: The Center for Public Integrity’s money-in-politics reporting team is bringing you news from the Republican National Convention — focusing on special-interest influence, big-money politicking and corporate schmoozing. Senior political reporter Dave Levinthal is on the ground in Cleveland. Please check back regularly as this article will be updated throughout the week.


8:51 p.m., Monday, July 18: It’s tough out there for conservative campaign finance reformers attending the Republican National Convention.

First, John Pudner of Take Back Our Republic and Morris Pearl of Patriotic Millionaires stood suited up atop a shade-free platform in a park on a day when temperatures topped 90 degrees.

The assembled crowd numbered 15 people, perhaps 20. Several left to walk across Cleveland’s Public Square where a group of ultra-conservative Christian preachers were attracting attention from dozens of unappreciative passers-by — and a small army of police officers.

Then, the wind blew down the little sign Pudner and Pearl had placed by their stage to promote their talk.

It might all seem to be a metaphor for right-of-center activists bent on convincing their ideological brethren that the post-Citizens United age of big-money politics is toxic.

Campaign finance reform is most often the providence of liberals and Democrats. Congressional Republicans, in particular, have routinely rejected legislation designed to curtail political money or otherwise limit its influence on elections.

But these two conservative men stood undaunted.

Pudner railed against a “political-industrial complex” that leaves people of modest means on the outside of political discourse looking in.

And he challenged political candidates and special interests alike to break free of what he considers a most unhealthy relationship.

“The first step of any alcoholic is to admit there is a problem,” Pudner said.

He proposed several reforms he says both liberals and conservatives could agree upon. Among them: provide tax credits for political contributions to incentivize small-dollar donations from average Americans and make campaign contributions more transparent across the board.

Most importantly, Pudner said, Americans must press their own congressional representatives and local leaders to push for systematic campaign money reforms.

Said Pearl: “Too many are using their political power to gain more wealth. We can change.”

— Dave Levinthal


6:34 p.m. Monday, July 18: There is plenty of political pageantry going down inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention is taking place.

But step outside, and you’ll find a world of glad-handing and deal-making that might even make a convention delegate blush.

Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal explains the situation to Arnie Arnesen on WNHN-FM 94.7 in Concord, N.H. Listen to their conversation here, and start the clip at the 31-minute mark.



12:54 p.m. Monday, July 18: Among the convention party-goers this week in Cleveland will be a quorum of the nation’s top election regulators.

The Center for Public Integrity has learned that five of the six members of theFederal Election Commission are planning to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, will not be in attendance.

Commissioners Ann Ravel, Steve Walther and Ellen Weintraub — the FEC’s three Democratic appointees — also plan on attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week. Petersen, along with Republican commissioners Lee Goodman and Caroline Hunter, plan to skip the Democrats’ affair.

In Cleveland and Philadelphia, commissioners don’t have formal events planned — no informational booths for curious passers-by, or, for haters, dunk tanks.

Instead, they say, the conventions will be an opportunity to interact with party activists and a time for informal discussions about campaign finance issues.

— Michael Beckel


11:20 a.m., Monday, July 18: The RNC host committee in Cleveland is still scrambling to raise those last few millions of dollars, but the DNC host committee is hitting a few bumps, too.

The Internal Revenue Service has rejected the Philadelphia host committee’s application for charitable, tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which means individual donors can’t take a deduction for giving to the group, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported over the weekend.

The Cleveland committee — and most past host committees — have received approval.

In an interview with the Inquirer, David L. Cohen, a Comcast executive and special adviser to the host committee, said it will appeal and is pursuing workarounds in the meantime.

At least two donors requested money back because of the uncertainty around the deduction, he said.

Cohen told the Inquirer that the host committee has an agreement with the Convention and Visitors Bureau Foundation, which does have the charitable tax status. Individual donors who need the tax deduction would donate to that foundation, which would then give a grant to the host committee. The grants would have to be used to pay for expenses in accordance with the foundation’s mission, promoting Philadelphia.

Anna Adams-Sarthou, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia host committee, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from the Center for Public Integrity. She’s previously been quoted as saying the host committee might consider becoming a so-called 501(c)(6) organization, a status typically used for trade associations. Corporations would be permitted to deduct contributions necessary to their business under that status, per the tax code.

— Carrie Levine


9:44 a.m. July 18, 2016: “Make America Secure Again” — that’s the theme of opening-day action in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention.

Senior political reporter Dave Levinthal, who’s in Cleveland, explains to WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo, N.Y., what to expect. He also previews the people scheduled to speak at the convention Monday.

Listen here to the interview.


9:35 a.m. Monday, July 18: How competitive is Ohio going to be between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in November? According to Democratic state Sen. Capri Cafaro, the answer is “very.”

The Center for Public Integrity recently caught up with Cafaro, who represents an area of northeastern Ohio, to discuss why Trump is winning over many Ohioans. Read the full interview here.

— Michael Beckel


9:49 p.m. Sunday, July 17: First, funnel a gaggle of candidates, political operatives, assorted VIPs, corporate types and Republican National Convention delegates into a (very well-secured) playground of free food and booze.

Then add the fourth-largest Great Lake to the north, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the south and a nearly full moon above the Cleveland skyline and a crimson sunset on the water. You now have tonight’s “Rock the Night in CLE Welcome Party.”

There’s lots of mom dancing and dad dancing to Three Dog Night going on, as the musical staple of the 1970s performs its 44-year-old hit “Black and White,” a song inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. “Bursitis” and “cricks in the neck” rank among the band’s topics of banter with the many shimmying folks who came of age during the Eisenhower administration or earlier.

Among those spotted: 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Emken of California; current U.S. Senate candidate Col. Rob Maness of Louisiana; Lakewood, Ohio Mayor Michael Summers and Royal Bank of Canada executive John Stackhouse.

Event sponsors made their presence clearly known to all revelers.

Financial headliners displayed on signs and video boards include Fifth Third Bank, KeyBank, the Cleveland Clinic, accounting titan Ernst & Young, paint giant Sherwin-Williams and Jones Day, a law firm most notable this election cycle for providing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump his lawyers, including chief election attorney Don McGahn.

The night’s most popular beer appears to be Coors — both the light and original versions are available.

— Dave Levinthal


3:31 p.m. Sunday, July 17: As Republicans here in Cleveland ready for Cirque du Donald, Democrats are doing their best to plumb their base for anti-Trump, post-Bernie Sanders vacuum pennies.

Democratic fundraisers are, however, experiencing an acute case of mixed messaging.

Take this come-on from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which proclaims: “Democrats are UNITED for victory… Your support got us here, Friend. You’ve helped us recruit the candidates we need to PUMMEL Republicans all over the map!”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, laments: “After Bernie Sanders’ inspiring call to unity, we thought at long last Democrats would…well…unify. But sadly that’s not what’s happened. Grassroots Democrats just haven’t stepped up.”

Regardless of whether liberals are fully united or hopelessly divided against Trump, the Democrats’ adventure in A/B testing ends with the same ask: open your wallet and give us money.

— Dave Levinthal

Donald Trump won’t be happy: the umbrellas inside swag bags are MADE IN CHINA.


2:17 p.m. Sunday, July 17: There’s absolutely zero evidence the Chinese are attempting to influence or otherwise rain on Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention presidential parade.

But if it begins pouring here in Cleveland, Trump’s favorite Asian foil will be on attendees’ minds: swag bags convention organizers are distributing come complete with a small black umbrella clearly labeled as being MADE IN CHINA.

Trump himself has caught flak for lending his name to a clothing line that includes suits and ties made in China.

— Dave Levinthal


1:34 p.m. Sunday, July 17: Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal, who’s reporting from Cleveland on the Republican National Convention, talked this morning with WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo about what he’s seeing and what he expects at the convention later this week.

Listen to the segment here.


8:37 a.m. Sunday, July 17: Come Monday — the first day of the Republican National Convention — a gaggle of Republican lawmakers, corporate interests and a prominent Fox News host are scheduled to tee off at a posh Cleveland-area golf course in the name of helping educate children of injured and deceased members of the armed services.

It’s a good cause, no doubt. It’s also a prime schmoozing opportunity for those looking to befriend elected politicians.

“Attendees include members of Congress and staff, governors, mayors, government relations professionals, wounded service members, professional athletes and celebrities,” an invitation reads.

Led by avid golfer and honorary chairman Bret Baier of Fox News, the “No Greater Sacrifice Congressional Shoot-out” at Kirtland Country Club is slated to feature five U.S. senators. They include former presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, according to an invitation reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chairman of the U.S. House’sSelect Committee on Benghazi and someone most certainly not on Hillary Clinton’s Christmas card list, is also listed as a participant.

The top event sponsor is Southern Company, the Atlanta-based energy giant, that since 2008 has spent between $12 million and $16 million annually lobbying the federal government. Next is Altria, the Richmond, Virginia-based tobacco company that since 2008 has spent between $9 million and $14 million annually to lobby the federal government.

Both companies contributed five-figure amounts, based on event sponsorship information, and will earn a variety of perks for their donations, including, for Southern Company, “high level visibility for company name and logo on all event marketing leading up to and at the event.”

Other event sponsors include pharmaceutical giant Abbott, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, tire maker Continental, Emerald direct lending advisers, Fierce Government Relations, FTI Consulting and NextEra Energy.

Fierce Government Relations’ government lobbying clients in 2016 include tech titan Apple, oil company BP, Coca-Cola Co., Delta Airlines, Ford Motor Co., H&R Block, Home Depot, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the National Football League Players Association, Time Warner Cable and the United Parcel Service, according to federal data compiled by theCenter for Responsive Politics.

The No Greater Sacrifice Foundation is a nonprofit charity that in 2014 had $1.12 million in income, according to tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

— Dave Levinthal


6:24 p.m. Saturday, July 16: On Wednesday evening, AT&T, agriculture titan Cargill and liquor giant Diageo are among the sponsors of “A Celebration of Diversity” — a festive gathering at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium that will fete several minority- or women-focused government relations/lobbying organizations: Washington Government Relations Group, Hispanic Lobbyists Association), H Street, Q Street, Women in Government Relations and Professional Women in Advocacy.

Lobbyists aren’t normally a shy bunch. But they’re apparently not in the mood for celebrating diversity with people who might … report on their celebrating. “I am sorry but the sponsors of the event do not wish to invite press to attend,” event associate LeeAnn Petersen told the Center for Public Integrity.

Here’s what we do know, according to an invitation: a top-shelf “platinum” event sponsorship scores you “premier visibility on all marketing materials associated with the event including invitations, flyer and signage at the event,” as well as a “speaking role” and 25 event tickets.

In addition to celebrating diversity in general, the event is designed to “recognize elected leaders who come from or support diverse backgrounds and constituencies.” Organizers are certain to point out that the event is “planned to comply with all laws and Congressional Ethics Rules.” The same groups are also gathering during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Asked about Cargill’s event sponsorship, spokesman Pete Stoddart told the Center for Public Integrity: “We are sponsoring this event at both the Republican and Democratic conventions to advance and promote inclusion and diversity in the workplace.” He declined to say whether Cargill requested the event be closed to the press. Representatives for AT&T and Diageo did not return requests for comment.

— Dave Levinthal


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2:47 p.m. Saturday, July 16: Fly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on a Saturday morning flight from Washington, D.C., the weekend before the Republican National Convention, and you’ll see plenty of familiar faces.

Over there is CNN’s Jake Tapper graciously taking selfies with a young fan as he waits at the United Airlines baggage claim.

And here’s PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff, stretching her legs with a small entourage after enduring a ride in the decidedly claustrophobic coach section.

One thing you won’t find? Almost anything to do with Donald Trump, who’s set to formally accept the Republican presidential nomination later this week at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.

In this Trump-free zone, there are no massive banners. No gaudy imagery. Even toothy Trump t-shirts or Donald-themed swag are nowhere to be found.

Based on initial airport impressions alone, it’d seem equally plausible that some politico other than Trump — Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, Wendell Willkie — is headlining the upcoming Republican National Convention.

Or maybe basketball royalty LeBron James, whose face is everywhere. Or the cape-clad Man of Steel, who lords over an exhibition that declares, “Did you know Superman was created in Cleveland?”

The Cleveland 2016 Host Committee — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization designed to raise money (latest: it’s begging GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson for cash) and manage Republican National Convention affairs — itself has rolled out a decidedly minimalistic red carpet.

Arriving convention delegates, journalists, political operatives and assorted lobbyists and will see some maroon-and-blue “We the people welcome you to Cleveland” signs and perhaps be greeted with a free bottle of water from a friendly volunteer in a white host committee polo shirt featuring the logo ofAT&T — one of the major companies lending its brand and services to the Republican National Convention.

Many other major corporations, though, have kept a lower profile here at the airport, which fits a pattern for many special interests: don’t be too obvious when supporting the Republican National Convention and a shoot-from-the-mouth candidate in Trump who has taken more than a couple of controversial policy stances.

That doesn’t so much apply to local companies. Several arriving conventioneers, for example, seemed genuinely impressed by a billboard sponsored by Ohio-based Duck Tape brand duct tape.

—   Dave Levinthal


1:40 p.m. Saturday, July 16: The Republican convention committee may be scrambling to raise a final few million dollars for the show, but corporations, unions and special interests have already given tens of millions of dollars toward businessman Donald Trump’s official anointing as the Republican presidential nominee.

The Cleveland host committee — a nonprofit organization that exists to fund and operate the Republican convention — doesn’t have to reveal its donors until 60 days after the convention. But the Center for Public Integrity has already unearthed some major backers, including KeyCorp, which is based in Cleveland.

Some companies have pulled back, nervous about the controversial nominee. Others are finding quieter ways to give — such as sponsoring private parties that don’t have to be disclosed, but allow them to rub elbows with lawmakers. Want to hear Rascal Flatts or Kip Moore? Sorry — invitation only.

For more, check out our story here — and remember, we’ll be on the lookout for special interest influence throughout the convention.

— Carrie Levine

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