The influence diaries: Dispatches from the Republican National Convention

An inside look at influence-peddling in Cleveland

By

 Updated:

Michael Beckel/Center for Public Integrity

Editor's note: The Center for Public Integrity’s money-in-politics reporting team is bringing you news from the Republican National Convention — focusing on special-interest influence, big-money politicking and corporate schmoozing. Senior political reporter Dave Levinthal is on the ground in Cleveland. Please check back regularly as this article will be updated throughout the week. Click here to read our coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

FREAKING OUT?

8:40 p.m. Thursday, July 21: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which isn't shy about blasting hyperbolic fundraising emails to its supporters, is out with a whopper tonight as the Republican National Convention conducts its final night in Cleveland.

With a subject line of "giving up hope," the message states: "We're FREAKING out. Trump is leading in the polls. He’s dominating in fundraising. And tonight, he is actually going to become the Republican nominee."

It's arguable that Democrats have gone into freak mode.

Trump is leading in a few, but not most, recent polls.

And technically, Trump became the Republican nominee Tuesday and will ceremonially accept that nomination tonight.

But what's clearly not the case is that Trump is dominating Clinton in fundraising.

As the Center for Public Integrity reported today, Clinton has raised more money than Trump, and her campaign has spent tens of millions of dollars more, too.

Likewise, the Clinton campaign has a significant advantage in available cash.

Finally, pro-Clinton super PACs have raised and spent exponentially more cash so far this election when compared to pro-Trump super PACs.

Any reasonable way one parses it, the DCCC's statement about Trump's fundraising is simply not true.

Dave Levinthal

— Dave Levinthal

The Center for Public Integrity's Dave Levinthal interviews Walt Hickey of FiveThirtyEight, who has 3 significant digits related to the Republican National Convention. For more coverage of the convention, go here: https://www.publicintegrity.org/2016/07/16/19924/influence-diaries-dispatches-republican-national-convention

Posted by Dave Levinthal on Thursday, July 21, 2016

IN CLEVELAND, A TALE OF TWO FEC COMMISSIONERS

1:52 p.m. Thursday, July 21, 2016: It wasn’t many weeks ago that Ann Ravel, a Democratic appointee to the Federal Election Commission, was dodging a new round of death threats and Drudge Report headlines after suggesting — much to some conservatives’ chagrin — her agency should explore tightening rules that govern online political advertising.

But here Ravel is in Cleveland, having never before attended a national political convention — Democratic or Republican.

So, first things first, Commissioner Ravel: are you a masochist?

“I feel safe,” she said, smiling — then acknowledging her family wasn’t jazzed about her attending. “There are so many police officers here, and they are all wonderful.”

Ravel traveled to the Republican National Convention along with four of her FEC commissioner colleagues because, she says, determining the role money plays in politics “is not a Republican issue or a Democratic” issue.

“Trump has said that himself during his campaign,” Ravel noted. “Trump — his support came in part because he said he wasn’t beholden to other people with lots of money.”

Ravel is hitting several bipartisan-themed, outside-the-convention-bubble events being conducted this week and plans to evangelize her philosophy of political transparency to any and all who will listen.

For one, Ravel was the only FEC commissioner — and one of the few attendees of any sort — at a Monday rally in Cleveland’s Public Square conducted by conservative money-in-politics reformer John Pudner of Take Back Our Republic and businessman Morris Pearl of bipartisan advocacy group Patriotic Millionaires.

Ravel, who joined the often-gridlocked FEC in late 2013 and served as the agency’s chairwoman during 2015, is also planning to attend the Democratic National Convention next week in Philadelphia.

Opposite Ravel is Lee Goodman, a Republican FEC commissioner and agency chairman in 2014 — and very much a national convention veteran during his years working as a lawyer in party politics and private practice.

In 2012, a year before he joined the FEC, Goodman provided legal counsel to also-ran Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, the Texas congressman, whose supporters agitated for recognition during that year’s Republican National Convention.

For Goodman, this year’s Republican National Convention is “an opportunity to re-connect with political practitioners and election law types — I’m simply here as an interested observer,” he said.

It’s healthy, Goodman said, for FEC commissioners of any political persuasion to get out of the Washington, D.C., bubble from time to time, and see party politics in action. He doesn’t have a rigid schedule for himself — some informal meetings, a few get-togethers, strolling around the convention grounds.

As a commissioner, Goodman has advocated for rules and regulations that help strengthen local, state and national party committees in this post-Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission era of politicking, in which super PACs and certain nonprofit groups often supersede party organizations in fundraising because of their ability to collect unlimited amounts of money. (Federal laws mandate that party committees must raise their cash in limited increments.)

A victory for Goodman’s philosophy stands in action here at the Republican National Convention, as the Republican Party has raised millions of dollars through a new kind of political fundraising account parties may use specifically for conducting political conventions. When it comes to raising cash for these accounts, Republicans have dominated Democrats, as the Center for Public Integrity noted Wednesday.

Goodman says he’d love to attend the Democratic National Convention next week in Philadelphia but will instead be in North Carolina for a long-standing family vacation.

Dave Levinthal

CLINTON OUTRAISING TRUMP BY 3-1 MARGIN

11:15 a.m. Thursday, July 21: Some sobering news from the Federal Election Commission as partygoers in Cleveland await the appearance of the star of the show: new fundraising numbers are in for the candidates and for Donald Trump, they do not look good. Hillary Clinton has a huge fundraising advantage. See details on this, plus many more tidbits from last night's campaign finance filings thanks to Michael Beckel. Go here to check out his latest report.

John Dunbar 

CRUZIN' FOR A BRUISING

10:31 a.m. Thursday, July 21: When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, declined to endorse — or even mention — Donald Trump during his speech Wednesday night at the Republican National Convention, the assembled delegates gave this ardent foe of New York values an arena-rumbling Bronx cheer.

Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal recaps this blow-up and other convention developments in an interview this morning with WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo. Listen here.

THE BILL, PLEASE

10:54 p.m., Wednesday, July 20: Someone has to pay for all those balloons. On the eve of the conventions, Republicans continue to vastly outstrip Democrats in amassing contributions to the new party convention accounts meant to help pay for the coronations in Cleveland and Philadelphia this month, according to newly filed campaign finance reports.

Republicans reported raising about $3.7 million in June. Major donors included New York investor Anthony Scaramucci and casino owner Phil Ruffin, who also spoke at the Republican National Convention tonight. The Republican Party has now reported raising roughly $19 million for its convention account so far this election cycle.

Democrats reported just a tenth of what Republicans did in June — $337,400. The DNC’s major donors last month included Laura Ricketts, a member of the family that owns the Chicago Cubs, and political action committees for defense contractor Honeywell, retailer Wal-Mart and the American Federation of Teachers labor union. Democrats have now raised about $5.3 million for their convention fund.

Political parties at one time received $18 million each in public funding for their conventions, in addition to money earmarked for security. But Congress eliminated this funding in 2014. To make it up, lawmakers created special “convention” accounts for each political party, allowing individuals to contribute $100,200 and political action committees to kick in $45,000. That’s in addition to other contributions to the party.

Corporations and unions may not give directly to these accounts, although political action committees they sponsor may do so.

— Carrie Levine

WHY DID DC’S DEMOCRATIC MAYOR GO TO THE RNC CONVENTION? TO LOBBY FOR STATEHOOD, OF COURSE

8:54 p.m. Wednesday, July 20: It was a curious scene Tuesday in Cleveland: There was Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser, at a private event hosted by black Republicans from Florida, mingling with a crowd that included the likes of former Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson and Herman Cain and Donald Trump adviser Omarosa Manigault.

Bowser, of course, is a Democrat — and a vocal supporter of Hillary Clinton. She was personally endorsed during her most recent mayoral campaign by President Barack Obama.

So why was she at the C’est La Vie Lounge in Cleveland, at a party co-sponsored by liquor company Cruzan Rum, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and private prison operator GEO Group?

As part of an effort to lobby anyone and everyone she can to support D.C. statehood.

“As she did throughout her day in Cleveland, Mayor Bowser took the opportunity to promote the District’s efforts for statehood,” Rob Hawkins, Bowser’s deputy chief of staff, told the Center for Public Integrity.

Hawkins added that Bowser attended the event at the invitation of Maryland State Senator Catherine Pugh, the Democratic nominee for mayor of Baltimore.

Bowser’s pitch to Republicans may be a tough sell.

The Republican Party platform officially calls for the District of Columbia to be maintained as is — and explicitly rejects statehood.

“Statehood for the District can be advanced only by a constitutional amendment,” the GOP platform states. “A statehood amendment was soundly rejected by the states when last proposed in 1976 and should not be revived.”

D.C.’s residents are overwhelmingly Democrats. And an early draft of the Democratic Party platform supports, D.C. statehood.

Bowser argues that D.C. could achieve statehood via Congress and without a constitutional amendment — something that requires a two-thirds vote of Congress, plus the approval of three-fourths of state legislatures for ratification.

— Dave Levinthal and Michael Beckel

‘THANK YOU. LEAVE NOW.’

7:32 p.m. Wednesday, July 20: The American West wants you to enjoy its hospitality — make Wyoming your home away from home! — and experience its natural wonders.

But the Western Caucus Foundation — a little-known nonprofit group whose honorary chairs are Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo. — had no interest in welcoming a reporter interested in experiencing how its members interact with wealthy special interests.

Here’s what happened:

The Western Caucus Foundation was today conducting a “Red, White and Western Whiskey & BBQ Reception” at Mabel’s BBQ in downtown Cleveland, just outside the Republican National Convention at Quicken Loans Arena.

A flier obtained by the Center for Public Integrity advertised the event as an opportunity for “invited guests” to meet with members of Congress.

This reporter walked up, presented the invitation on his iPhone to a security guard, announced himself by name and organization and proceeded inside without issue.

A handful of people milled about, chatting and ordering drinks. The doors to the 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. event had just opened, and no formal program had yet begun.

About a minute later, another security guard, earpiece in ear, approached.

“You’re not on the list, and you must leave,” he said.

“What list?”

“The list you’re not on.”

“OK. Could I speak to an event organizer?”

“You can speak to him,” the security guard said, pointing to, and motioning over, a police officer.

“Thank you. Leave now,” the security guard said and opened the restaurant’s door.

The reporter left.

It’s unclear who sponsored and funded today’s event. There were no banners or placards visible in the restaurant’s foyer that listed its financial backers.

The event flier encouraged potential financial backers to contact two event officials listed regarding “support opportunities.”

Formed in 2013 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit “cultural exchange organization,” the Western Caucus Foundation counts Republicans lawmakers of the Senate Western Caucus and House Western Caucus among its members. Individuals, corporations and other nonprofits may donate to the group and receive a tax credit for doing so.

The Western Caucus Foundation describes itself as the “voice of the West” and its mission as “informing and educating policy makers and the public on federal policy issues distinctive to western and rural communities.” It says it is “committed to advancing the following key principles: protecting private property, strengthening local control, promoting economic growth and increasing energy independence.”

Here in Cleveland, dozens of different organizations led by politicians or political operatives are conducting events for special interests with a financial or ideological interest in gaining access to lawmakers and political power brokers. And the special interests are all too willing to pay good money for the privilege.

No cash? No access.

Next week in Philadelphia, when Democrats nominate Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate, much of the same is slated to occur.

— Dave Levinthal

VETERANS' SUPER PAC BLASTS TRUMP

11:38 a.m. Wednesday, July 20: A left-leaning veterans’ organization, backed by unions, made its first ad buy of this election cycle last week, telling voters that Donald Trump is “too dangerous for America.” See the latest from the Center for Public Integrity's Source Check file, where we look at political ads and identify who funds them.

John Dunbar

TRUMP CONVENTION TRAIN BACK ON TRACK?

9:54 a.m. Wednesday, July 20: After a wacky Monday sullied by accusations of Donald Trump's wife, Melania, plagiarizing first lady Michelle Obama, Republican National Convention speakers largely trained their anger on one person: Hillary Clinton.

Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal in Cleveland gives a recap in this interview on WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo, N.Y. Listen here.

DRUG, BOOZE AND PRISON INTERESTS THROW BLACK REPUBLICANS A PARTY IN CLEVELAND

11:05 p.m. Tuesday, July 19: As Donald Trump officially clinched the GOP presidential nomination Tuesday night, a group of about 100 loyal Republicans weren’t inside Quicken Loans Arena watching history get made.

Instead, they were across Cleveland’s downtown at a swank private party co-sponsored by liquor company Cruzan Rum, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and private prison operator GEO Group.

Hosted by the Republican Black Caucus of Florida, the gathering at C’est La Vie Lounge featured free drinks and plenty of smiles among attendees, particularly when former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson and wife Candy arrived and graciously entertained countless rounds of small talk and selfies.

Herman Cain, the pizza mogul who briefly led polls in the 2012 Republican presidential primary, also showed up. So did former Rep. Allen West, R-Fla. Even Washington, D.C.’s decidedly Democratic mayor, Muriel Bowser, made a brief cameo as partygoers mingled, traded business cards and chatted atop white leather couches.

When approached by the Center for Public Integrity, a half-dozen attendees declined to identify themselves or comment about the event.

But Paul Berry III, a congressional candidate in Missouri’s St. Louis area, wasn’t among them.

He said he’s a proud black Republican and a member of a group that’s growing. He panned any notion peddled by liberals that the Republican Party doesn’t represent black Americans’ interests or that, as a Democratic fundraising email today suggested, condones racism in its ranks.

“That’s completely untrue,” Berry said. “If it were true, I wouldn’t exist as a candidate.”

The event’s loose theme — speeches were kept short, so not to squelch socializing — was inclusiveness in the Republican Party.

Event organizers had billed the affair as featuring Trump’s children — Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Tiffany Trump — but they didn’t attend, instead staying put at the convention hall as delegates formally casted their votes for their father.

Omarosa Manigault, the Trump campaign’s director of African American outreach, hung out for the first half of the event.

“There is enough room in the tent,” she said about black Americans interested in joining the Republican Party. “Republicans celebrate diversity.”

Sean P. Jackson, chairman of Black Republican Caucus of Florida, wholeheartedly agreed.

Trump, Jackson said, embodies those values.

“A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for integrity … for restored dignity,” Jackson told the crowd as he stood in front of a sponsorship board that named the aforementioned corporate sponsors, as well as the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.

So about those sponsors. What do they get out of the event?

“Those sponsors believe in the mission of inclusiveness, which is why we’re so glad to have a relationship with them,” Jackson said.

The Black Republican Caucus of Florida describes its mission as achieving “community action through the dissemination of conservative values, in a combined effort with elected officials and community leaders” and working “tirelessly to empower all walks of life to embrace their God-given potential and take personal responsibility for their lives and their desired prosperity in their respective pursuit of happiness.”

— Dave Levinthal

MONEY MAKES THE SHOW GO ON

7:40 p.m. Tuesday, July 19: Both the Republican National Convention and Democratic National Convention are largely privately funded affairs in 2016, with donors getting access and seeking influence.

Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal discussed the money behind the conventions today with CNN's Hala Gorani. Watch their conversation here.

WHO'S BEHIND TRUMP'S NEW SUPER PAC ATTACK DOG?

7:12 p.m. Tuesday, July 19: A pro-Donald Trump super PAC called “Rebuilding America Now” has positioned itself as an attack dog, unafraid to take shots at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

However, Rebuilding America Now is not yet the giant it dreams of being.

Officials with the group say they will raise more than $60 million before Election Day. Campaign finance documents show the group has so far raised $2.16 million — with $2 million of that coming from developer Geoffrey Palmer.

Wealthy real estate investor Tom Barrack, a longtime friend of Trump's who helped launch the super PAC, is slated to be one of the featured speakers at the Republican National Convention on Thursday.

Who else is behind the group? The Center for Public Integrity took a look here.

— Michael Beckel

— Michael Beckel

CLINTON RAISES CASH OFF REPUBLICAN 'WHITE SUPREMACY'

5:11 p.m. Tuesday, July 19: In a bid to raise money in the midst of the Republican National Convention, the Hillary Victory Fund — a joint fundraising committee involving Democrat Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, the Democratic National Committee and a gaggle of state party committees — is accusing the Republican Party of promoting "white supremacy."

Reads an email Tuesday afternoon to supporters: "Yesterday, Republican Congressman Steve King went on TV and asked whether 'any other subgroup of people' had 'contribute[d] more to civilization' than white people ... these kind of bigoted and divisive comments have become the status quo in Donald Trump's Republican Party." 

Above the message sits a big, red "CONTRIBUTE" button. Below it, options to donate several specific amounts to the Democratic fundraising operation, from $3 to $100.

Republican Party officials at the Republican National Convention couldn't immediately be reached for comment about the Democrats' email.

Omarosa Manigault, who serves as the Trump campaign's director of African American outreach, declined to answer questions about the fundraising message when the Center for Public Integrity spoke with her at a private party for black Republicans Tuesday near Quicken Loans Arena, where the GOP convention is being conducted. 

"I'm not going to talk about it here, at this event," she said, saying she'd consider speaking about the matter by phone later in the evening.

—   Dave Levinthal

Dave Levinthal of The Center for Public Integrity shows you what it's like to walk on the Republican National Convention floor. Go along for a tour.

Posted by Dave Levinthal at 3:23 p.m. Tuesday, July 19, 2016

RNC PLATFORM AT ODDS WITH TRUMP ON MONEY IN POLITICS

3:20 p.m. Tuesday, July 19: Raising or repealing contribution limits. Opposing the identification of donors. Ending restrictions on political parties.

Despite criticism of the role money plays in politics from presumptive nominee Donald Trump (though he’s walked that back lately), the Republican Party platform, adopted by delegates this week, endorses lifting just about all restrictions on political spending.

“Freedom of speech includes the right to devote resources to whatever cause or candidate one supports,” it reads.

Several restrictions echo the GOP’s 2012 platform, including raising or repealing contribution limits, but there are some differences.

For example, the 2012 platform called for “repeal of the remaining sections of” the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, often referred to as McCain-Feingold, after its chief Senate sponsors.

The Supreme Court’s 2014 decision in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission overturned parts of that law, so the current platform now calls for removing remaining restrictions on political parties — something GOP delegate Jim Bopp of Indiana, a prominent campaign finance lawyer, is trying to do via the courts.

The current platform also has language saying the “forced funding of political candidates through union dues and other mandatory contributions violates the First Amendment.”

Carrie Levine

OFF-SCRIPT INSIDE, TENSIONS OUTSIDE

2:24 p.m. Tuesday, July 19: Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal spoke with Arnie Arnesen of WNHN-FM 94.7 live from Cleveland about the latest developments at the Republican National Convention, both on and off the convention floor.

Listen here to the interview, and begin the clip at the 28:30 mark.

OOPS … RICK PERRY WANTS YOU TO FORGET HIS TRUMP ANGST 

10:54 a.m. Tuesday, July 19: Nearly a year ago today, Donald Trump found himself weathering withering attacks from Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then himself a Republican presidential candidate — albeit one struggling to attract financial or moral support. (Perry would soon become the first Republican presidential candidate to quit Election 2016.) 

Trump’s candidacy, Perry declared, was a “cancer on conservatism” — one that “must be clearly diagnosed, excised and discarded.” Trump, Perry continued, offers voters no more than a “barking carnival act that can best be described as Trumpism: a toxic mix of demagoguery, mean-spiritedness and nonsense that will lead the Republican Party to perdition if pursued.”

Flash forward to Monday night. As Perry took the the Republican National Convention’s stage in Cleveland, he did not look to be a man straddling Hell’s highway while introducing another speaker, former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell.  

Perry — who in May endorsed the presumptive GOP nominee — borrowed Trump’s slogan in last night declaring: “Tonight, our commitment is this: making America great again starts by taking care of our veterans.”

Just one problem: That “cancer on conservatism” statement Perry made last year? Perry still had it posted on his website, even as he participated in Trump’s nomination coronation. 

About an hour after the Center for Public Integrity noted this fact in a tweet, Perry’s anti-Trump screed disappeared from RickPerry.org

Aides to Perry didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. 

— Dave Levinthal

COPYCAT CONVENTION SPEECH?

9:54 a.m. Tuesday, July 19: Monday night at the Republican National Convention didn’t lack high drama — and not all of it reflected positively on Republicans, particularly if your name is Melania Trump.

Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal offers this recap on WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo, N.Y. Listen here.

IT'S ALL ABOUT THE $$$

9:12 a.m. Tuesday, July 19: For retired Col. Rob Maness, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Louisiana, the real action at the Republican National Convention is everywhere but the Quicken Loans Arena.

Maness tells the Center for Public Integrity he's hitting "about 35" fundraisers and other events during the convention in an effort to boost his bid. Read the full story about his fundraising at the convention here

— Dave Levinthal

WHO’S ADDICTED TO BIG MONEY IN POLITICS?

8:51 p.m. Monday, July 18: It’s tough out there for conservative campaign finance reformers attending the Republican National Convention.

First, John Pudner of Take Back Our Republic and Morris Pearl of Patriotic Millionaires stood suited up atop a shade-free platform in a park on a day when temperatures topped 90 degrees.

The assembled crowd numbered 15 people, perhaps 20. Several left to walk across Cleveland’s Public Square where a group of ultra-conservative Christian preachers were attracting attention from dozens of unappreciative passers-by — and a small army of police officers.

Then, the wind blew down the little sign Pudner and Pearl had placed by their stage to promote their talk.

It might all seem to be a metaphor for right-of-center activists bent on convincing their ideological brethren that the post-Citizens United age of big-money politics is toxic.

Campaign finance reform is most often the providence of liberals and Democrats. Congressional Republicans, in particular, have routinely rejected legislation designed to curtail political money or otherwise limit its influence on elections.

But these two conservative men stood undaunted.

Pudner railed against a “political-industrial complex” that leaves people of modest means on the outside of political discourse looking in.

And he challenged political candidates and special interests alike to break free of what he considers a most unhealthy relationship.

“The first step of any alcoholic is to admit there is a problem,” Pudner said.

He proposed several reforms he says both liberals and conservatives could agree upon. Among them: provide tax credits for political contributions to incentivize small-dollar donations from average Americans and make campaign contributions more transparent across the board.

Most importantly, Pudner said, Americans must press their own congressional representatives and local leaders to push for systematic campaign money reforms.

Said Pearl: “Too many are using their political power to gain more wealth. We can change.”

— Dave Levinthal

INSIDE OUT

6:34 p.m. Monday, July 18: There is plenty of political pageantry going down inside Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, where the Republican National Convention is taking place.

But step outside, and you'll find a world of glad-handing and deal-making that might even make a convention delegate blush.

Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal explains the situation to Arnie Arnesen on WNHN-FM 94.7 in Concord, N.H. Listen to their conversation here, and start the clip at the 31-minute mark.

PARTY LIKE AN ELECTION REGULATOR?

12:54 p.m. Monday, July 18: Among the convention partygoers this week in Cleveland will be a quorum of the nation's top election regulators.

The Center for Public Integrity has learned that five of the six members of the Federal Election Commission are planning to attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

FEC Chairman Matthew Petersen, a Republican, will not be in attendance. 

Commissioners Ann Ravel, Steve Walther and Ellen Weintraub — the FEC's three Democratic appointees — also plan on attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia next week. Petersen, along with Republican commissioners Lee Goodman and Caroline Hunter, plan to skip the Democrats’ affair.

In Cleveland and Philadelphia, commissioners don't have formal events planned — no informational booths for curious passers-by, or, for haters, dunk tanks.

Instead, they say, the conventions will be an opportunity to interact with party activists and a time for informal discussions about campaign finance issues.

— Michael Beckel

10:59 a.m. Monday, July 18: Republican National Convention organizers do a dry run of the day's programming.

Posted by Dave Levinthal on Monday, July 18, 2016

MEANWHILE, IN PHILADELPHIA…

11:20 a.m. Monday, July 18: The RNC host committee in Cleveland is still scrambling to raise those last few millions of dollars, but the DNC host committee is hitting a few bumps, too.

The Internal Revenue Service has rejected the Philadelphia host committee’s application for charitable, tax-exempt status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, which means individual donors can’t take a deduction for giving to the group, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported over the weekend.

The Cleveland committee — and most past host committees — have received approval.

In an interview with the Inquirer, David L. Cohen, a Comcast executive and special adviser to the host committee, said it will appeal and is pursuing workarounds in the meantime.

At least two donors requested money back because of the uncertainty around the deduction, he said.

Cohen told the Inquirer that the host committee has an agreement with the Convention and Visitors Bureau Foundation, which does have the charitable tax status. Individual donors who need the tax deduction would donate to that foundation, which would then give a grant to the host committee. The grants would have to be used to pay for expenses in accordance with the foundation’s mission, promoting Philadelphia.

Anna Adams-Sarthou, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia host committee, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from the Center for Public Integrity. She’s previously been quoted as saying the host committee might consider becoming a so-called 501(c)(6) organization, a status typically used for trade associations. Corporations would be permitted to deduct contributions necessary to their business under that status, per the tax code. 

— Carrie Levine

PREVIEWING MONDAY’S REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION ACTION

9:44 a.m. July 18, 2016: “Make America Secure Again” — that’s the theme of opening-day action in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention.

Senior political reporter Dave Levinthal, who’s in Cleveland, explains to WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo, N.Y., what to expect. He also previews the people scheduled to speak at the convention Monday.

Listen here to the interview.

BATTLEGROUND OHIO

9:35 a.m. Monday, July 18: How competitive is Ohio going to be between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton in November? According to Democratic state Sen. Capri Cafaro, the answer is "very." 

The Center for Public Integrity recently caught up with Cafaro, who represents an area of northeastern Ohio, to discuss why Trump is winning over many Ohioans. Read the full interview here.

— Michael Beckel

CAN’T SPELL ‘ROCK ‘N’ ROLL’ WITHOUT R-N-C

9:49 p.m. Sunday, July 17: First, funnel a gaggle of candidates, political operatives, assorted VIPs, corporate types and Republican National Convention delegates into a (very well-secured) playground of free food and booze.

Then add the fourth-largest Great Lake to the north, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to the south and a nearly full moon above the Cleveland skyline and a crimson sunset on the water. You now have tonight’s “Rock the Night in CLE Welcome Party.”

There’s lots of mom dancing and dad dancing to Three Dog Night going on, as the musical staple of the 1970s performs its 44-year-old hit “Black and White,” a song inspired by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. “Bursitis” and “cricks in the neck” rank among the band’s topics of banter with the many shimmying folks who came of age during the Eisenhower administration or earlier.

Among those spotted: 2012 U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Emken of California; current U.S. Senate candidate Col. Rob Maness of Louisiana; Lakewood, Ohio Mayor Michael Summers and Royal Bank of Canada executive John Stackhouse.

Event sponsors made their presence clearly known to all revelers.

Financial headliners displayed on signs and video boards include Fifth Third Bank, KeyBank, the Cleveland Clinic, accounting titan Ernst & Young, paint giant Sherwin-Williams and Jones Day, a law firm most notable this election cycle for providing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump his lawyers, including chief election attorney Don McGahn.

The night’s most popular beer appears to be Coors — both the light and original versions are available.

— Dave Levinthal

DEMOCRATS' MIXED MESSAGING

3:31 p.m. Sunday, July 17: As Republicans here in Cleveland ready for Cirque du Donald, Democrats are doing their best to plumb their base for anti-Trump, post-Bernie Sanders vacuum pennies.

Democratic fundraisers are, however, experiencing an acute case of mixed messaging.

Take this come-on from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which proclaims: "Democrats are UNITED for victory... Your support got us here, Friend. You’ve helped us recruit the candidates we need to PUMMEL Republicans all over the map!"

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meanwhile, laments: "After Bernie Sanders’ inspiring call to unity, we thought at long last Democrats would...well...unify. But sadly that’s not what’s happened. Grassroots Democrats just haven’t stepped up."

Regardless of whether liberals are fully united or hopelessly divided against Trump, the Democrats' adventure in A/B testing ends with the same ask: open your wallet and give us money.

— Dave Levinthal

STAYING DRY IN CLEVELAND, BEIJING-STYLE

2:17 p.m. Sunday, July 17: There's absolutely zero evidence the Chinese are attempting to influence or otherwise rain on Donald Trump's Republican National Convention presidential parade.

But if it begins pouring here in Cleveland, Trump's favorite Asian foil will be on attendees' minds: swag bags convention organizers are distributing come complete with a small black umbrella clearly labeled as being MADE IN CHINA.

Trump himself has caught flak for lending his name to a clothing line that includes suits and ties made in China.

— Dave Levinthal

REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION PREVIEW

1:34 p.m. Sunday, July 17: Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal, who’s reporting from Cleveland on the Republican National Convention, talked this morning with WBEN-AM 930 in Buffalo about what he’s seeing and what he expects at the convention later this week.

Listen to the segment here.

TOBACCO, ENERGY INTERESTS GOLF FOR THE KIDS — AND ACCESS

8:37 a.m. Sunday, July 17: Come Monday — the first day of the Republican National Convention — a gaggle of Republican lawmakers, corporate interests and a prominent Fox News host are scheduled to tee off at a posh Cleveland-area golf course in the name of helping educate children of injured and deceased members of the armed services.

It's a good cause, no doubt. It’s also a prime schmoozing opportunity for those looking to befriend elected politicians.

“Attendees include members of Congress and staff, governors, mayors, government relations professionals, wounded service members, professional athletes and celebrities,” an invitation reads.

Led by avid golfer and honorary chairman Bret Baier of Fox News, the “No Greater Sacrifice Congressional Shoot-out” at Kirtland Country Club is slated to feature five U.S. senators. They include former presidential candidates and U.S. Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, according to an invitation reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity.

Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, chairman of the U.S. House’s Select Committee on Benghazi and someone most certainly not on Hillary Clinton’s Christmas card list, is also listed as a participant.

The top event sponsor is Southern Company, the Atlanta-based energy giant, that since 2008 has spent between $12 million and $16 million annually lobbying the federal government. Next is Altria, the Richmond, Virginia-based tobacco company that since 2008 has spent between $9 million and $14 million annually to lobby the federal government.

Both companies contributed five-figure amounts, based on event sponsorship information, and will earn a variety of perks for their donations, including, for Southern Company, “high level visibility for company name and logo on all event marketing leading up to and at the event.”

Other event sponsors include pharmaceutical giant Abbott, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association, tire maker Continental, Emerald direct lending advisers, Fierce Government Relations, FTI Consulting and NextEra Energy.

Fierce Government Relations’ government lobbying clients in 2016 include tech titan Apple, oil company BP, Coca-Cola Co., Delta Airlines, Ford Motor Co., H&R Block, Home Depot, the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the National Football League Players Association, Time Warner Cable and the United Parcel Service, according to federal data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The No Greater Sacrifice Foundation is a nonprofit charity that in 2014 had $1.12 million in income, according to tax filings with the Internal Revenue Service.

— Dave Levinthal

CELEBRATE DIVERSITY

6:24 p.m. Saturday, July 16: On Wednesday evening, AT&T, agriculture titan Cargill and liquor giant Diageo are among the sponsors of "A Celebration of Diversity" — a festive gathering at the Greater Cleveland Aquarium that will fete several minority- or women-focused government relations/lobbying organizations: Washington Government Relations Group, Hispanic Lobbyists Association), H Street, Q Street, Women in Government Relations and Professional Women in Advocacy.

Lobbyists aren't normally a shy bunch. But they're apparently not in the mood for celebrating diversity with people who might ... report on their celebrating. "I am sorry but the sponsors of the event do not wish to invite press to attend," event associate LeeAnn Petersen told the Center for Public Integrity.

Here's what we do know, according to an invitation: a top-shelf "platinum" event sponsorship scores you "premier visibility on all marketing materials associated with the event including invitations, flyer and signage at the event," as well as a "speaking role" and 25 event tickets.

In addition to celebrating diversity in general, the event is designed to "recognize elected leaders who come from or support diverse backgrounds and constituencies." Organizers are certain to point out that the event is "planned to comply with all laws and Congressional Ethics Rules." The same groups are also gathering during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Asked about Cargill's event sponsorship, spokesman Pete Stoddart told the Center for Public Integrity: "We are sponsoring this event at both the Republican and Democratic conventions to advance and promote inclusion and diversity in the workplace.” He declined to say whether Cargill requested the event be closed to the press. Representatives for AT&T and Diageo did not return requests for comment.

— Dave Levinthal

WITHER DONALD?

2:47 p.m. Saturday, July 16: Fly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on a Saturday morning flight from Washington, D.C., the weekend before the Republican National Convention, and you’ll see plenty of familiar faces.

Over there is CNN’s Jake Tapper graciously taking selfies with a young fan as he waits at the United Airlines baggage claim.

And here’s PBS News Hour’s Judy Woodruff, stretching her legs with a small entourage after enduring a ride in the decidedly claustrophobic coach section.

One thing you won’t find? Almost anything to do with Donald Trump, who’s set to formally accept the Republican presidential nomination later this week at Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena.

In this Trump-free zone, there are no massive banners. No gaudy imagery. Even toothy Trump t-shirts or Donald-themed swag are nowhere to be found.

Based on initial airport impressions alone, it’d seem equally plausible that some politico other than Trump — Ted Cruz, Mitt Romney, Wendell Willkie — is headlining the upcoming Republican National Convention.

Or maybe basketball royalty LeBron James, whose face is everywhere. Or the cape-clad Man of Steel, who lords over an exhibition that declares, “Did you know Superman was created in Cleveland?”

The Cleveland 2016 Host Committee — a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization designed to raise money (latest: it’s begging GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson for cash) and manage Republican National Convention affairs — itself has rolled out a decidedly minimalistic red carpet.

Arriving convention delegates, journalists, political operatives and assorted lobbyists and will see some maroon-and-blue “We the people welcome you to Cleveland” signs and perhaps be greeted with a free bottle of water from a friendly volunteer in a white host committee polo shirt featuring the logo of AT&T — one of the major companies lending its brand and services to the Republican National Convention.

Many other major corporations, though, have kept a lower profile here at the airport, which fits a pattern for many special interests: don’t be too obvious when supporting the Republican National Convention and a shoot-from-the-mouth candidate in Trump who has taken more than a couple of controversial policy stances.

That doesn’t so much apply to local companies. Several arriving conventioneers, for example, seemed genuinely impressed by a billboard sponsored by Ohio-based Duck Tape brand duct tape.

—   Dave Levinthal

LET’S GET THIS PARTY STARTED

1:40 p.m. Saturday, July 16: The Republican convention committee may be scrambling to raise a final few million dollars for the show, but corporations, unions and special interests have already given tens of millions of dollars toward businessman Donald Trump’s official anointing as the Republican presidential nominee.

The Cleveland host committee — a nonprofit organization that exists to fund and operate the Republican convention — doesn’t have to reveal its donors until 60 days after the convention. But the Center for Public Integrity has already unearthed some major backers, including KeyCorp, which is based in Cleveland.

Some companies have pulled back, nervous about the controversial nominee. Others are finding quieter ways to give — such as sponsoring private parties that don’t have to be disclosed, but allow them to rub elbows with lawmakers. Want to hear Rascal Flatts or Kip Moore? Sorry — invitation only.

For more, check out our story here — and remember, we’ll be on the lookout for special interest influence throughout the convention.

— Carrie Levine

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