GOP leaders, donors mix during secretive forum

Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio, Karl Rove among speakers, documents show

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Documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity shine new light on a secretive, high-octane political confab last month at a luxury resort, where industry titans and GOP megadonors mingled with mostly Republican power players at an exclusive, “off-the-record” retreat.

GOP 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney, House Speaker John Boehner, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ranked among the event’s headliners, according to an event program.

The American Enterprise Institute, which hosted the gathering, spent more than $50,000 on travel, lodging and meals for 18 members of Congress who attended the event, some of whom traveled with family members whose expenses were also covered, according to travel documents filed with Congress and reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity. In all, about 350 “speakers,” “attendees,” “spouses” and “guests” attended, the documents indicate.

Congressional ethics rules do not prohibit private organizations from footing the bills for lawmakers’ trips. Only lobbyists and agents of foreign governments are generally barred from sponsoring trips.

A handful of elected officials in attendance — such as Boehner, Ryan and Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C. — used personal money or funds from their campaigns or leadership PACs to attend the conference, according to their spokespeople.

Judy Mayka Stecker, a spokeswoman for the American Enterprise Institute, declined to answer questions about the forum.

“To maintain intellectual freedom and free discourse, the event is private and off-the-record,” she said. “Therefore we do not comment further on the content or attendees.”

But in letters to lawmakers, American Enterprise Institute President Arthur Brooks described the gathering as “feisty, focused and highly informative,” with the goal of bringing together “some of the world’s most distinguished business leaders, policymakers and scholars for off-the-record, agenda-setting discussion covering challenges in politics, economics, foreign policy and other critical areas.”

The multi-day “World Forum” summit — which the American Enterprise Institute has conducted annually since 1982— took place during early March at The Cloister in Sea Island, Ga., a venue known for its “legendary elegance” and “five miles of private beach.”

Among the elite attendees listed in the program: brewing magnate Peter Coors; coal executive Joseph Craft; former Amway president Dick DeVos, who has bankrolled numerous Republican causes in Michigan; former Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman; TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, a major GOP donor whose son, Pete Ricketts, is running for governor in Nebraska; and Spencer Zwick, Romney’s former finance director.

At the retreat, guests could attend an array of policy briefings and panel discussions over the course of the weekend, documents indicate.

For instance, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels discussed “how to fix the states.”

Lobbying firm executive and former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington and GOP strategist Karl Rove tackled how “millennials, minorities and women” will vote during upcoming elections.

And those interested in the future of American foreign policy heard from former Vice President Dick Cheney, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, former World Bank president and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz; former Democrat-turned-independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut; and Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, among others.

A handful of current and former Obama administration officials also participated in the gathering. They included Austan Goolsbee, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers; Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council; and National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander.

Apple CEO Tim Cook; Scott Carpenter, the deputy director of Google Ideas; Doug Elmendorf, director of the Congressional Budget Office; and Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States, were also featured at the forum, according to event documents.

So, too, were journalists and commentators — such as Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner and Fox News; David Brooks of the New York Times; former CNN anchor Campbell Brown; Paul Gigot of the Wall Street Journal; Bill Kristol, the founder of the Weekly Standard; and Ramesh Ponnuru of the National Review. They often served as moderators for the event’s panels.

Brian Phillips, a spokesman for Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, called the event “an opportunity to talk to conservative policy makers” about the senator’s push to implement a “conservative reform agenda."

Kevin Seifert, a spokesman for Ryan, said the House Budget Committee chairman attended the event because it “provided a good opportunity” to “to hear from leading scholars, thinkers and lawmakers about the public policy issues facing our nation.”

Melinda Schnell, a spokeswoman for Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, said the senator attended because he believes it is “important” to have “these kinds of frank conversations and meaningful discussions among leaders from the business, political and financial world.”

Only two Democratic members of Congress were in attendance, according to the program: Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I.

Seth Larson, a spokesman for Whitehouse, said the Rhode Island Democrat participated in the event “to discuss the promise of health care delivery system reform,” as well as the “costs of carbon dioxide pollution from fossil fuels.”

In a statement released ahead of the event, Whitehouse said that he looked forward to “a forthright discussion” despite his expectation that his views on these issues would “differ greatly” with those of the think tank’s leaders.