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Democratic convention organizers took corporate money despite promise not to

By Matea Gold, Tribune Washington Bureau –

WASHINGTON — Democratic convention organizers broke their pledge to stage the three-day meeting without corporate donations, using $5 million from a committee financed by companies such as Bank of America, Duke Energy and AT&T to rent the Time Warner Arena for the three-day event.

The payments were revealed in reports filed Wednesday evening with the Federal Election Commission.

The limits were part of President Barack Obama’s promise to curtail the role of big money in politics, a goal he has struggled to meet. He railed against the influence of outside groups in elections, but gave his blessing this year to a “super PAC” supporting his reelection after GOP-allied groups began to spend millions of dollars to defeat him.

Before the September convention in Charlotte, N.C., organizers said the ban on direct contributions from corporations, lobbyists or political action committees had not hurt their fundraising. In an interview during the convention, Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz said organizers had “exceeded that bar” and had financed the event without special-interest money.

But FEC reports show that convention organizers raised only $24.1 million of their $36.7 million goal. That forced them to cover the rental fee for the arena with $5 million from New American City, a civic committee set up by the host committee that was allowed to accept corporate cash. Officials had said the nonprofit group would not be used to pay for the convention itself, but rather would cover the costs of overhead, welcome parties and community projects.

Campaign finance reform advocates said the party’s promise to bar corporate money proved hollow.

“While it’s admirable to pledge to refuse corporate donations, when push came to shove and the Democrats had to choose between their pledge or cutting back on the excessive extravagance of modern-day conventions, they chose extravagance,” said David Donnelly, executive director of the Public Campaign Action Fund.

In the end, organizers leaned heavily on corporations to put on the convention. Faced with fundraising difficulties, the host committee drew nearly $8 million of a $10 million line of credit provided by Duke Energy, whose chief executive, Jim Rogers, was co-chairman of the host committee. It has until Feb. 28 to repay the loan.

Duke gave $5.7 million in in-kind contributions and cash donations to New American City and the Committee for Charlotte, the arm of the host committee that produced the convention.

New American City, which paid hospitality and administrative costs, raised $19 million — nearly all from corporations. Bank of America, headquartered in Charlotte, gave $5 million. AT&T donated $1 million, while Time Warner Cable contributed $600,000. Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studios donated $2 million to the nonprofit fund on Sept. 4, the first day of the convention.

Although corporations could not contribute cash to the Committee for Charlotte, they could donate goods and services, as Microsoft, Coca-Cola and Adobe did. The committee accepted donations from unions, which gave at least $2.65 million. And wealthy individuals, such as San Francisco hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer, real estate executive Constance Milstein and Slim-Fast founder S. Daniel Abraham together gave millions more.

The host committee still has more fundraising to do: It ended September $8.7 million in debt, with just $1 million in the bank.

Organizers of the Republican National Convention, which had no restrictions on their fundraising, raised $55.9 million for their August event in Tampa, Fla. Among the corporations and wealthy individuals who gave were casino developer Sheldon Adelson ($5 million), Florida-based Marketing Solution Publications ($4 million), American Petroleum Institute ($2 million) and Bank of America ($1 million).

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