The Other Side of the Super Bowl: Congressional Fundraising Blitz

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.

“Any time politicians are getting something that’s not available to the average fan, I think the public has right to question that,” said Jordan Kobritz, an expert in sports marketing and ethics at Eastern New Mexico University. “I think it’s favoritism. I think it’s a way to raise money. I think it’s one reason why it’s so hard to displace an incumbent politician. They have access to these tickets. They can raise the funds that a challenger cannot raise.”

Reps. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Steve Scalise, R-La., attended the Super Bowl, but it was unclear whether they held fundraisers. Their staffs did not reply to inquiries. Scalise told the New Orleans Times-Picayune he got his tickets from DirectTV, which carries NFL games. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., attended the game, reportedly with his two sons, but his staff could not say how he got his tickets.

The political festivities surrounding the Super Bowl have been more circumspect since 1995, when Congress imposed a $50 limit on the value of gifts that lawmakers could accept, lobbying experts say. The parties became even tamer in 2007, when Congress outlawed gifts of any value after the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

But while the restrictions tamped down the activities, they didn’t eliminate them. Access is one of the most powerful tools available to lobbyists, and campaign contributions remain one of the most reliable ways to get that access.

Three of the lawmakers who came to Miami had home state teams in the Super Bowl—Pence and Bayh of Indiana and Scalise of Louisiana. But they also all hold positions on committees that could make them potentially helpful to a range of industries, whether on regulatory, tax or spending matters. 

Scalise is on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which is vital to several major industries. Pence is the third-highest-ranking member of the House GOP leadership. Bayh sits on committees that oversee the banking, housing and energy industries.

New York Congressman Meeks sits on the Financial Services Committee, which is playing a crucial role in the nation’s rebound from the 2008 credit crisis.

Florida’s Meek, now in his fourth term, is important because he’s a member of the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee. And he has his eye on the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Republican George LeMieux.

Meek’s spokesman, Adam Sharon, said there is nothing wrong with a lawmaker’s buying tickets at face value from the NFL. “This is simply an opportunity for us to say thank you to our top supporters,” Sharon said. “There is no conflict of interest.”

But with the NFL’s activities increasingly monitored by agencies like the Federal Communications Commission and various congressional committees, some object to the league making tickets available to elected officials.

“This is something that I would see as being unethical” because the tickets aren’t available to average fans, said Kobritz, the sports ethics expert.

For years, the NFL has lobbied Congress for an exemption from the nation’s antitrust laws. That could boost the NFL’s revenue by giving it greater leverage in negotiations with broadcasters. It could also give the league an advantage in its dealings with vendors and players.

The NFL is already an $8 billion-a-year business thanks to revenue from selling broadcasting rights to the networks and DirectTV, ticket sales, stadium concessions and the sale of league apparel.

Frustrated in its efforts to get Congress to act on its antitrust agenda, the NFL is urging the Supreme Court to use a case now before it, American Needle Inc. vs. the NFL, to exempt the league from antitrust laws.

The NFL’s political action committee, Gridiron-PAC, raised more than $310,500 last year, much of it from team owners. It gave $244,500 to candidates, including $5,000 to Conyers, who as chairman of the Judiciary Committee is a point man for antitrust issues in the House.

Jonathan Godfrey, the Judiciary Committee’s communications director, twice told ProPublica that he would try to find out where Conyers’ leadership PAC got its Super Bowl tickets, how many it had and how much it paid for them. He said he would get back to us. He never did. When we spoke with Godfrey today, he still didn’t know if Conyers went to the Super Bowl or if he held a fundraiser.

The NFL also has been tight-lipped about ticket distribution. 

“We make a very limited number of tickets available for purchase by request to a variety of people, including elected officials,” said Jeff Miller, the league’s in-house lobbyist in Washington. “Rep. Conyers did not request tickets from our office. If he obtained tickets, it would have been from another source.”

The NFL offered Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao, R-La., tickets to the Super Bowl, but he turned them down in favor of an invitation to the watch the game with President Obama at the White House, according the Times-Picayune. The paper also reported that Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, would attend the Super Bowl with tickets provided by the New Orleans Saints.

In Indianapolis, the Colts offered tickets to a broad array of public officials, including 32 legislators, four members of Congress and 26 city-county councilors, according to The Indianapolis Star.

At some point, depending on whether they file monthly, quarterly or semi-annually, anyone in Congress who used campaign or leadership PAC money to pay for their tickets will have to file a campaign finance report listing the expenditure. But it might be impossible to find. The line giving the reason for the expense is unlikely to say “to pay for Super Bowl tickets.” More likely, it will say something vague like “fundraising expense.”

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The Super Bowl Blitz is part of a continuing effort here at ProPublica to try to reveal the circumstances surrounding campaign contributions and the very private exchanges that take place between lobbyists and members of Congress. If you missed out on the Blitz but want to get involved in similar events, sign up here and we’ll notify you of our next project.


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