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Special Interests Wine, Dine and ‘Salute’ Government Officials

August 16, 1996

SAN DIEGO (AP) _ South Dakota isn’t the center of political or corporate America. But on the last two days of the Republican National Convention, its delegates and officials were the center of attention at receptions thrown by some corporate giants.

The reason was simple: South Dakota is home to Larry Pressler, the chairman of the powerful Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees a large segment of American industry from telecommunications to transportation.

On Thursday morning, the reception host was none other than United Airlines, one of several airlines pushing for a user fee to replace the recently expired federal tax on airline tickets.

In the afternoon, the event tab was picked up by entertainment giant Time-Warner, which has a multibillion dollar merger pending before the government and was a recent winner in telecommunication legislation shepherded by Pressler.

A day earlier, there was a bash for South Dakotans thrown by Union Pacific, the rail giant with another controversial merger pending.

The scene was repeated all week in San Diego. At every imaginable spot _ from art museums to yachts _ corporations and special interests with countless regulatory and legislative interests have wined, dined and entertained elected officials.

Those who have laid out millions to pay for receptions say their motive is to honor and thank the country’s leaders, not influence their decisions with pate, wine and shrimp on silver platters.

``It gives us a chance to say hello. This is not the time to talk a lot of details,″ ARCO Chemical spokesman Jim Cobb said.

But Paul George, a senior vice president at United, added: ``This is a good chance to meet people in leadership so when we come to talk to them about issues, they’ll know who we are.″

Critics see a corrupting effect, in which access to decisionmakers and good will are bought with corporate dollars.

``There’s something wrong when the people who choose the nominee are down on the floor, while those who can give large sums of money are in boxes looking down on them,″ said Rep. Linda Smith, R-Wash. She was referring to convention skyboxes rented by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., and others to mingle with big donors.

Smith boycotted a cruise taken by her delegation Thursday because it was sponsored by Philip Morris.

Whatever the impact, there’s little doubt the GOP convention has been a special interest spectacle.

New York’s delegation was treated every day by special interests.

The tab for their opening-day reception, which offered delegates a nylon bag full of goodies, was picked by Healthcare Associates. Health care reform legislation has been a major focus in the state legislature.

On Wednesday night, the wine-and-cheese reception for New Yorkers at the San Diego Zoo was footed by Turner Construction Co., which did $6.5 million in business with the state last year.

Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson was honored at receptions by two corporate giants _ AT&T, which just won a huge state tax break that takes effect in the year 2000, and Chrysler Corp., which is seeking a $9 million state assistance package. Thompson skipped Bob Dole’s arrival in San Diego for the AT&T bash.

``I’d much rather be here. ... And Bob Dole won’t miss me,″ the governor said.

New Jersey’s convention delegation was treated to a beach party _ complete with lobster and a steel drum band _ honoring state Senate President Donald DiFrancesco and Assembly Speaker Jack Collins. It was paid for by the Chemical Industry Council.

Pending before the Legislature is a series of proposals that would relax some of the state’s most stringent requirements on water pollution emissions.

Such largesse ``doesn’t have any of the impact that some might think,″ insisted Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, who flew to the convention aboard the jet of Arlington International Racetrack owner Richard Duchossois. The track has sought state help to protect it from increased competition from riverboat gambling.

For members of Congress, this year’s convention posed a dilemma _ how to join their delegations at key events without violating the stringent gift ban and lobbying rules that took effect Jan. 1.

Congressional ethics regulators declared a few months ago that legislators could accept free drink and food during the conventions only at ``widely attended″ events.

The Washington superlobbying firm of Patton Boggs poked fun at the rule in a flag-covered invitation that offered members of Congress and their staff members ``a widely attended event″ to eat, drink and shoot pool with lobbyists for two nights at a billiards hall a few blocks from the convention hall.

One group of businesses threw a party at the same warehouse for four straight nights _ each with a different theme _ to honor Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, who plays a big role in deciding what legislation reaches the floor as chairman of the House Republican Conference.

At Chevron’s ``Salute to the 104th Congress″ at an art museum, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott streamed past a buffet table teaming with champagne, shrimp and a steamship round of beef.

``It’s a lot about schmoozing and getting money from corporations,″ said 12-year-old Ilana Novick, a reporter for the Children’s Express newspaper who was turned away.

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