Democrats’ Event Raises Questions About ‘Pay To Play’

Fri, Nov 13, 2009 at 2:01 pm

    A Democratic Party-sponsored "national innovation conference" to examine key policy and technology issues at Google’s headquarters beginning today has critics charging that the $5,000-and-up ticket prices limit access to the event to Silicon Valley high rollers and raise the specter of "pay to play" politics.

    Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica likened the event to Republicans holding an energy conference at an oil company headquarters.

    The consumer rights group urged California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and four other senators to boycott the fundraiser sponsored by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

    Eric Schultz, communications director for the campaign committee, defended the event, saying in a statement, "It took Democrats seizing control of Congress to pass the strongest ethics and lobbying reform in history. All of our fundraising is fully transparent and follows the law."

    $5,000 To Attend

    The conference is not open to the public and requires a minimum $5,000 contribution to the committee. Campaign donations of more than $200 must be publicly reported under federal law.

    According to invitations, the event today and Saturday will include a host of A-list venture capitalists, CEOs and tech insiders, who are scheduled to participate in panels exploring health care, the environment, technology and other issues.

    "A closed donor-funded event is an inappropriate place for senators to discuss matters affecting public policy. You will only hear the perspective of those who can afford the steep price of admission," said Jaime Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, in a letter this week.

    He argued that even as the Senate debates issues concerning Google, Microsoft and other tech giants, the event will deliver "Silicon Valley high rollers a private audience… that will define the terms of the policy debate in a vacuum."

    A Google spokesman said this week that the firm was selected as a site and rented its facilities to the campaign committee for the conference.

    Leading names in Silicon Valley are backing the event, according to invitations, including Obama fundraiser Wade Randlett, venture capitalist John Doerr and others who "invite you to join" Boxer and other senators, including Feinstein, Mark Warner of Virginia, Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Mark Begich of Alaska.

    Joel Benenson, pollster for President Obama, is listed as a special guest.

    Feinstein’s office said Thursday that she was never scheduled to attend the event and will not be present.

    Boxer On Panel

    Boxer is scheduled to appear on an environmental panel with Google CEO Eric Schmidt, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, Begich and Bingaman, among others.

    Zachary Coile, a spokesman for Boxer, said Thursday that "Sen. Boxer was invited to join this panel to deliver the same message she’s been giving in meetings and speeches across the state and around the country – that our clean energy future will be good for consumers, good for jobs and the economy, and good for business."

    He said that on the issue of campaign fundraising, "Sen. Boxer follows the current law and she continues to fight for campaign finance reform that would allow us to get the big money out of politics once and for all."

    Democrats are hardly alone in holding such closed-door events on policy issues, political observers said.

    Similar GOP Event

    The National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee will hold a similar tech-themed event in Washington next week, headlined by Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, where representatives from Google and Facebook will hold a "technology summit" for leading GOP senators.

    The event Monday and Tuesday at the Grand Hyatt also requires a minimum $5,000 contribution for entry.

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