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Democrats get 'creative' to tap into corporate money for convention

NBC's Michael Isikoff reports on the lavish celebrity-filled parties that take place at both the Democratic and Republican conventions where delegates, donors and lobbyists flock to throw their money and influence around.

While publicly pledging to refuse corporate money, the official host committee for this week’s Democratic National Convention has quietly and aggressively courted corporate donors — using a sister nonprofit that has been offering firms special “sponsorship opportunities” if they ponied up $1 million or more to help cover the costs of the event.

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A 13-page marketing brochure obtained by NBC News shows how New American City, a nonprofit that is closely affiliated with the official Democratic convention host committee,  offered package deals to corporate contributors — with different benefits starting at levels of $100,000 and escalating to the top “Tryon Street Level” of $1 million.

The companies that reached the seven-figure level got “naming rights” at “villages” set up for a Charlotte street festival that opened up the convention, as well as guarantees that “your logo will be featured prominently.” The firms also got to put up banners and logos at other convention-related events — such as a delegate and media welcoming parties — as well as the chance  to include their logos in gift bags that are being handed out to 6,000 delegates and over 15, 000 members of the media.

The use of New American City to tap corporate funds appears to have worked. While Charlotte in 2012 has struggled to meet its $37 million fundraising goal, New American City has raised about $15 million from corporate donors that include Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Duke Power and Time Warner Cable, according to public statements by foundation and host committee officials.

The courtship of big corporate donors by New American City stands in contrast to much of the rhetoric that Democrats have used to describe this week’s Charlotte convention. ” By publicly stating that they wouldn’t take money from corporations and lobbyists — or any donations over $100,000 — for the official convention host committee, the Democrats have said they are holding a “people’s convention” unlike any that has come before it.

But campaign spending watchdogs say that the operations of New American City (the foundation accepts donations from lobbyists as well as corporations) reveal some of the Democrats’ claims to be hollow.  

“It’s amazing how creative Democrats can be finding loopholes around their own rules,” said Bill Allison of the Sunlight Foundation, a group that t has been tracking the role that corporations and lobbyists have played at both party’s conventions. “It’s the Super Bowl for special interests at the convention. We’re seeing it in Charlotte the same way that we saw it in Tampa.”

New American City is a nonprofit  set up by Charlotte in 2012 — the name of the official host committee — initially to promote “Charlotte hospitality” and showcase  the city’s reputation “as a New South City,” according to the marketing brochure. But it has  much of the same staff as Charlotte in 2012 (the foundation’s finance and deputy finance director are the same) and many of the corporate funds that have gone to New American City have been used to pay expenses that would normally be covered by the official host committee. 

Suzi Emmerling, who serves as spokeswoman for both groups, confirmed that New American City has paid  “administrative costs” for the convention, such as the salaries and health care benefits of the host committee staff as well as delegate and media welcoming parties and the Charlotte street festival called CarolinaFest.

But Emmerling said that no corporate money has been used to pay for “official convention” costs as outlined in a contract signed by the Charlotte in 2012 with the Democratic National Committee. She also said that this year’s Democratic convention has gone further than any previous convention in attracting small individual donors, receiving 85 times more such contributions than the Democrats got in 2008.

“We’ve dramatically expanded the donor base,” she said. “We have gone further than any other convention in trying to keep out corporate money.”

Corporate and lobbying money has long been a staple of political conventions of both parties; the Republicans placed no restrictions on taking such funds for its convention in Tampa. Moreover, while touting its enlarged base of smaller donors, the Democratic convention host committee has also made strong efforts to attract money from big party bundlers — many of whom have invaded Charlotte, taken over posh watering holes like the bar at the Ritz Carlton Hotel and who are attending many of the glitzy parties sponsored by big lobbying groups and corporations such as the Recording Industry Association, the Distilled Spirits Council and Google.

A separate package released by Charlotte in 2012 describes a range of packages offered to such party bundlers and big donors. A “Carolina Package” for those who raised $1 million entitled donors to  “premier uptown hotel” rooms, concierge services, priority access for rental facilities and multiple “gold tickets” to convention events, including parties. Lesser packages for those raising $650,000, or $500,000 (the “Trustee Plus” package or the “Piedmont Package,” respectively) also got premier rooms and tickets to convention events, but fewer in number.

Despite the organizers’ promise to hold “the most transparent convention” in history and initial pledge to release the names of all donors in real time, the convention organizers now say they won’t release a complete list of the donors to either group until they are required to do under federal election law — next month, long after the convention is over.

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