Thursday, September 07, 2006

More on Sweeney's boat give away

Actually, we first reported on Sweeney and the NMMA $ on June 1st, not in July. (Though we talked about it again in July when Sweeney started getting press for his introduction of the bill.)

One of the things that is funny about this story coming out in the national press this week, is that I handed the story on a platter to a local reporter back in June. During our conversation, the reporter asked if I'd be as upset if a Democrat accepted funding from a union and then introduced a bill that the union backed.

Gee, that wasn't the case, but anyway if a union backs something, it would probably cost corporations money - not tax payers. If would help working class people and not a special interest corporations, maybe I'd be supportive.

Sweeney's bill will cost tax payers not companies. And it won't work, it is just a give away to a campaign donor. But the reporter didn't cover the story then anyway.

The other pathetic part of this story, is how Sweeney tries to convince people that he came up with the idea for this legislation after a Lake George boating accident that ended in several deaths. Sweeney's spinner admits that boats require life vests but that boaters don't wear them. I've yet to understand how giving tax breaks to boat builders/campaign donors is going to change that. In a shamelessly indecent stunt, Sweeney used the anniversary of the accident to promote his tax give away. Even in Monday's story below, his spinner is still trying to tell us that the idea came from the Ethan Allen accident. I kid you not!

Sweeney's spinner also says that his office doesn't know what the bill will cost tax payers.

So now our "representative" just hands out blank USA Treasury checks to his donors without considering what effect it will have on our national budget?

Here's the Chicago Tribune story:

Waters grow choppy for lobby's perk to lawmakers

By Mike Dorning in the Chicago Tribune

September 4, 2006

WASHINGTON -- They called it the "Congressional Cruise Series," featuring lovely evenings on a luxury yacht complete with "two large staterooms ... a deluxe entertainment center and an airy comfortable salon." They billed it, unabashedly, as a way for lobbyists to develop relationships with influential politicians.

By all appearances, the National Marine Manufacturers Association's program of taking members of Congress and their staffs on cruises--and hosting fundraisers for lawmakers aboard the same boat--succeeded quite nicely.

The cruises have yielded photos of a congressman at the helm of the yacht and group shots of other lawmakers posed on the boat with their smiling aides, all posted on the association's Web site. At least one of those congressmen later proposed legislation that the association strongly favored.

Money long has lubricated Washington in myriad ways, from exotic travel to campaign contributions, from the subtle to the blunt. Even with the high-profile guilty plea of lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose case brought to light breathtaking excesses, the wheels of Washington continue to turn. The cruises, at least, are in hiatus this summer because of what the association's lobbyist called the "poisoned" atmosphere.

Photographs, newsletters and lobbying reports on the Web site of the Chicago-based trade association for recreational boat manufacturers provide a window into one way special interests navigate the channels of influence in Washington.

There are images of Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) and members of his congressional staff posing on the yacht while the sun sets behind the Washington Monument. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) poses on the bow with several aides who are holding beverage containers.

In another photo, Rep. John Sweeney (R-N.Y.) is pictured at the helm during one of two fundraisers for his re-election campaign held on the yacht. The trade association donated the use of the boat, according to campaign finance records.

This May, Sweeney introduced legislation to give boat manufacturers a tax break for the cost of personal flotation devices and emergency beacons sold together with boats.

A spokeswoman for Sweeney said the trade group's hospitality and campaign contributions did not influence the congressman. She said that the tax break grew out of Sweeney's efforts to improve nautical safety after a boating disaster in his district last October.

Cruises beached

The cruises have been suspended this summer, a casualty of public sensitivity to privately financed luxury perks. Photos of lawmakers on yachts with lobbyists might not go down well in any campaign season but would seem particularly dicey this year.

For years, the National Marine Manufacturers Association asked one of its member manufacturers to lend the group's Washington lobbying office the use of a new yacht for the warm-weather months. The purpose was "to help our government relations staff develop relationships with key policy makers," the group's political action committee wrote in a report to members.

In 2004 and 2005, it was a 38-foot Meridian 381 Sedan that the trade association kept moored at a marina on the Potomac a few blocks from the Capitol. The cruises are emblematic of the Washington culture in which lobbyists use entertainment and gifts to curry favor with lawmakers and their staffs, said Ross Baker, a former congressional staff member and a Rutgers University political science professor who specializes in the study of Congress.

"Much of this is in the general area of buying access and goodwill for the lobbyist," Baker said. "When the lobbyist shows up at the office, a receptionist who has been part of this outing on the yacht recognizes the lobbyist and gets him in for a meeting with the chief of staff."

Profits in the boat industry are influenced by a wide array of federal activities, including Coast Guard regulations, fishing rules, endangered species protection, environmental standards and maintenance of federal waterways. A luxury tax imposed on the purchase of high-end boats during the early 1990s and later repealed dramatically reduced yacht sales.

Last summer, the trade association hosted more than 650 congressional aides aboard the yacht, according to a report written by the trade group's chief lobbyist, Monita Fontaine.

Beer, soft drinks and snacks typically were provided on the cruise, Fontaine said in an interview.

In a newsletter, the organization described the Potomac yacht trips, which it said ran from mid-June through early October, as a way for members to Congress "to reward their staffs, while at the same time allowing us to thank members for their support of the recreational boating industry."

The cruise series "is intensely popular and one of the most talked-about events on Capitol Hill," the newsletter added.

With the trade association required to make arrangements for a boat by late winter, shortly after the Abramoff scandal erupted and amid speculation that Congress would act to tighten gift rules, the group decided to suspend the cruise series this year, Fontaine said.

"The atmosphere was poisoned at that time, and we didn't have a clarification on what Congress would do with gift rules. Until we have that clarified, we will wait, to make sure everything is aboveboard," Fontaine said.

Fontaine said the trade association believes the yacht excursions meet congressional ethics rules, which forbid lawmakers and their staffs from accepting a gift worth $50 or more.

Fontaine said the trips were primarily to educate members of Congress and their staffs about boating issues. "One hour on the Potomac is worth 1,000 pieces of paper," she said. "It's a tremendous educational tool, because most people don't view things from out on the water."

Yacht was an edge

The trade group also used the yacht for fundraisers, boasting to its PAC contributors that the events gave candidates an edge in a city where fundraisers "tend to be carbon copies of the same old reception format."

Melissa Carlson, a spokeswoman for Sweeney, described the revenue raised from his yacht fundraisers as "modest." She said the 2004 fundraiser raised the congressman's campaign $4,150 and the event the following year raised $8,000.

The trade association also made a $4,000 cash contribution to Sweeney's current campaign.

"That had nothing to do with the [tax break] legislation," Carlson said.

Carlson said the congressman hoped that a tax deduction covering the cost of personal flotation devices would encourage boatmakers to furnish higher-quality, more-comfortable life jackets when delivering boats. Boats are required to carry life jackets, but passengers often do not wear them, she said.

Carlson said the office did not have an estimate on what the tax break would cost the federal treasury.

She said Sweeney became interested in the issue after the capsizing of the pleasure boat Ethan Allen drowned 20 people in Lake George last October. None of the victims was wearing a life jacket.

Other members of Congress whom the trade group's PAC hosted for fundraisers on the yacht included Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Reps. Ed Case (D-Hawaii), Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.), Jeff Miller (R-Fla.), Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) and Don Sherwood (R-Pa.), according to trade association and federal campaign finance reports.

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