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The Other Side of the Super Bowl: Congressional Fundraising Blitz

Even when the venue is America’s most public sports spectacle, politicians largely succeed in remaining invisible, especially when their activities include fundraising.

Was it the two feet of snow that blanketed Washington during the days leading up to the Super Bowl? Or was it the unintended consequence of our Super Bowl Blitz, a two-week telephone survey that ProPublica conducted with the help of its readers, trying to find out which members of Congress would be attending this year’s big game?

In any case, at least two Super Bowl fundraising events scheduled by members of Congress were scrubbed at the last minute or moved to undisclosed locations. Invitations to those parties, which had been circulated two or more weeks before the game, promised Super Bowl tickets to contributors who gave either of the lawmakers $5,000.

Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., had coupled his offer with an invitation to join him over Super Bowl weekend at the posh Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami. Among the activities planned for the weekend was a poolside luncheon. Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., had promised contributors lunch at Joe’s Stone Crab, a popular South Beach eatery.

Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Fla., did show up at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla., for his fundraiser on Saturday afternoon. ABC News, which partnered with ProPublica in an effort to find out where the members of Congress got their Super Bowl tickets, also showed up at the hotel. But surprised Meek staffers quickly shut the door and asked the crew to leave.

The result was one of those delicate media moments that occur when politicians expecting privacy are confronted by a network news team hoping to film them. As the camera continued rolling in the hallway outside the event, Meek’s staffers peeled name tags off the lapels of the congressman’s departing guests. When Meek headed for his car, ABC’s news crew peppered him with questions about how he got the Super Bowl tickets he offered to partygoers who contributed $4,800. He didn’t have answers.

What we learned from this exercise is that even when the venue is America’s most public sports spectacle, politicians largely succeed in remaining invisible, especially when their activities include fundraising. It quickly became apparent that they feel they’re entitled to privacy when they’re accepting campaign money from contributors.

The Super Bowl is one of thousands of events each year where lobbyists and others with business before the federal government provide campaign contributions to lawmakers in an attempt to ingratiate themselves and gain access. Candidates for Congress raise $1 billion every two years, primarily through these types of private get-togethers.

The Super Bowl presents a special opportunity, because tickets to the game aren’t sold to the general public. A small number—1,000 this year—are sold to people who enter and win a lottery the league conducts. The rest are distributed at face value (either $800 or $1,000 this year) by the NFL and its 32 member teams as they see fit, under a shroud of secrecy.

Most fans are forced to get their tickets on Web sites like StubHub, where a ticket for the nosebleed seats sold for about $1,800. Yet lawmakers like Conyers, Meeks and Meek have no trouble getting tickets, not only for their personal use but also to exchange for contributions that are four or five times the face value of the tickets.

On Sunday, a Meek staffer said the campaign had bought about 10 tickets from the NFL at face value for the congressman and his contributors. However, it remains unclear where Conyers and Meeks got their tickets, how much they paid for them and how much they netted by using them in their fundraising activities.

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