Fatcat Inaugural Contributors Have a Lot to Gain

Many of President Bush’s largest corporate contributors to this month’s $40 million inaugural bash are also some of the nation’s biggest government contractors, getting at least $2.9 billion from Uncle Sam last year.

Forty-four corporations, groups and individuals have each pledged $250,000 – the maximum under voluntary guidelines set by the White House – to defray costs for the most expensive inauguration ever held for a second-term president.

At least five are corporations that got $286 million or more in federal contracts last year, according to a Scripps Howard News Service study of the Federal Procurement Data System computer files maintained by the Office of Management and Budget.

“This is something the public ought to be looking at. It’s a giant loophole because it’s a way for special interests to maximize their clout with the administration,” said Steven Weiss of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. “They are hoping to extend their influence.”

Other contributing firms have important legislative or regulatory issues pending before Congress or the White House this year.

“When we look at the list of donors, we see a number of companies that have pending business, shall we say, before the administration,” said James Benton, a research analyst for Common Cause, a nonpartisan public interest lobbying group. “The corporations will say it’s all about being a good corporate citizen. But it’s also about getting access and influence.”

The largest federal contractor to give to the president’s inaugural is United Technologies Corp., which last year had active federal contracts worth $1.2 billion. The company produces Pratt & Whitney F119 jet engines used in the F-22 Advanced Tactical Fighter, although exactly how many of these $350 million aircraft will be built is still under debate by Pentagon policymakers.

A spokesman said United Technologies wanted to show “strong support for a national tradition” through its donation.

“Presidential inaugurations transcend partisan politics,” said spokesman Scott Seligman from the company’s Washington office. “We’re delighted to do our part in a tangible way that helps make public tickets to inaugural events more affordable for everyone.”

Other top contractors who have given the maximum allowable to Bush’s inaugural include Exxon-Mobil Corp., which signed a single deal worth $390 million to provide petroleum products for the Defense Logistics Agency. Exxon had 120 contracts totaling at least $649 million for a variety of goods and services.

There were other energy-related donors that gave the maximum allowed, including Texas oilman Boone Pickens, former Enron president Richard Kinder who now runs the natural gas company and utility giant Southern Co.

Also giving $250,000 for the inauguration were AT&T, which had contracts worth $366 million, Michael Dell of Dell Computer with federal sales of $362 million and Ford Motor Co. with government sales of $286 million.

Critics said special interest groups have other motivations for currying the White House’s favor besides federal contracts. “Many of these groups are regulated industries that clearly want to influence how the government regulates them,” Weiss said.

Petroleum and electric companies will want to influence the national energy bill still pending in Congress, while financial institutions like Bank of America will be impacted by Bush’s proposal to privatize part of the Social Security Administration’s funds and to create tougher bankruptcy laws.

“There are reasons to be concerned by all of this,” Benton said. “These people aren’t giving money from the bottom of their hearts. The bottom line is they want something, some kind of consideration.”

The individuals and groups giving to the inauguration are considerably less Texas-oriented than was the case for Bush’s political and inaugural fundraising four years ago. This year, 21 donors from California gave $3.2 million, followed by 15 donors from the District of Columbia who gave $2.4 million. Texans come in third with 12 donations worth $1.6 million, followed by nine New Yorkers worth $1.2 million.

The donor report issued this week by the president’s inaugural committee totals $17.8 million, well below the $40 million goal. Bush faced a similar problem four years ago when donations were slow for the $40 million target he set then, as well.

Bush’s 2001 inaugural committee solved the shortfall by offering special “underwriter packages” of inaugural tickets for groups that contributed at least $100,000.

On the Net: www.inaugural05.com  

(Reach Thomas Hargrove at hargrovet(at)shns.com)