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Lawmakers keep wining and dining Area representatives describe fundraising as a necessary evil

Rep. Chris Lee threw a Christmas party last Dec. 9 -- but only for those who gave him the biggest campaign gifts allowable under law.

Lee's event, a thank-you for donors who had "maxed out" on their contributions to the freshman lawmaker, came two days before the House approved a massive bill re-regulating the financial industry.

The Office of Congressional Ethics is now looking at Lee's fundraiser and those of seven other House members -- six of whom, like the Clarence Republican, broke bread or clinked cocktail glasses with big-money contributors shortly before that vote.

But Lee's event was nothing unusual.

Rep. Louise M. Slaughter D-Fairport, feted donors at the National Democratic Club a day before the vote on the financial services bill.

And Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, shared breakfast with contributors on Capitol Hill six days later.

Neither was named in the probe that's looking at Lee.

Good-government advocates aren't quite sure what to make of the preliminary investigation touching on Lee -- other than to say it's yet another sign of a Washington fundraising culture run amok.

"Most people would be astonished that this is how it works, but lawmakers go from party to party, with people with vested interests in the issues the lawmakers are voting on, just about every day," said Nancy Watzman, director of the Sunlight Foundation's Party Time Project, which tracks political fundraising events.

What's more, lawmakers can routinely be seen just outside the Capitol, clutching their cell phones to their ears and politely asking for money.

Many privately acknowledge spending several hours a week hunkered down in cubicles at their respective party headquarters, dialing for dollars like a bunch of telemarketers.

And the Party Time Project -- which admits it doesn't catch every political fundraiser -- found 16 of them happening last Thursday alone.

For example, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., held a catfish fry for his political action committee at a Capitol Hill townhouse owned by FedEx -- which is spending millions to lobby against legislation that would make it easier for its drivers to join labor unions.

Not to be outdone, UPS -- which is pushing Congress to preserve that provision that could harm its rival -- opened the doors of its Capitol Hill townhouse for a "Georgia Peach Party" for Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga.

Countless companies, special interests and lobbying firms own Capitol Hill townhouses that they rent out to lawmakers on the cheap for fundraisers, several campaign finance experts said. But FedEx spokesman Maury Lane said his company lets nonprofits and campaign committees use its townhouse for free.

The FedEx and UPS townhouses don't particularly impress Scott Maurer, one of the key members of the Families of Continental Flight 3407, who have fought hard for aviation safety improvements included in a bill that's now being held up in part by the FedEx-UPS squabble.

"It's extremely frustrating," said Maurer, who lost his daughter, Lorin, in the February 2009 plane crash in Clarence that claimed 50 lives. "We don't have that kind of money. And even if we did, it's disturbing to try to use money to get what you want in that way."

In some cases, a connection appears to exist between where lawmakers hold their fundraisers and where they get their money.

For example, Political Party Times' records show that Lee held two fundraisers at a facility owned by the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America -- and the insurance industry is his second-biggest source of campaign funds.

What should voters think of Lee raising money at the independent insurance agents' facility?

"They should wonder how independent Mr. Lee is from the independent insurance agents," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Lee serves on the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the insurance industry. The preliminary probe that's looking at his fundraising is also looking at the efforts of seven other lawmakers -- four Republicans and three Democrats -- who serve on Financial Services or the tax-writing Ways and Means Committee.

Lee has stressed, though, that he opposed the Democratic financial reform bill long before his Dec. 9 party for donors and his vote against the measure two days later.

He said using the insurance agents' facility was "more a matter of proximity than anything else," and said of his fundraising: "I'm working within the rules to make sure my message gets out."

Lee is by no means the only local lawmaker holding fundraisers at venues that could raise eyebrows.

Higgins held two fundraisers at a townhouse owned by the Bartlett and Bendall lobbying firm, whose clients include Countrywide Financial and Washington Mutual -- two of the biggest subprime mortgage lenders that precipitated the financial crisis.

"I don't even know who that group is," Higgins said when told about Bartlett and Bendall. He said his fundraising consultant chooses locales for his events, and a fundraiser's venue is much less important than who is giving the money.

Higgins gets the vast majority of his money from the Buffalo area and 94 percent of his total from New York State, according to a Center for Responsive Politics analysis of campaign data. Lee gets 84 percent from New York State, while Slaughter gets only 67 percent from the state.

All three lawmakers said, though, that they can never remember contributors -- wherever they are -- pressuring them to vote a certain way.

"I can confidently say that my vote has never been affected by the people that support me financially, and anyone who has given me money knows that," Slaughter said. "I'm grateful to the people who support me, but I'm beholden to the people who sent me here."

Lee and Higgins said the same thing, though they have different levels of distaste for political fundraising.

Lee, a former businessman with a sales background, calls fundraising "an unfortunate reality."

"I was getting robocalls against me in my district the first week I was here," Lee said, saying he needs to raise money aggressively in order to fight back.

And raise money he has, pulling in $1.09 million for his re-election campaign as of March 31.

Higgins raised less -- $780,612 -- between January 2009 and the end of this March, and it doesn't sound like he had much fun raising it.

"I hate having them; I hate going to them," Higgins said of political fundraisers. "Everyone stands around uncomfortably, and then you leave. It's all very transactional. People come and go because they're going to six events in one night."

The awfulness of it all isn't enough, though, to get Higgins or Lee to change their ways.

Higgins said he had to make phone calls last week to invite people to a fundraiser he's having in D.C. next month.

Meanwhile, Lee has an event set for next Wednesday at a swanky D.C. restaurant called Art and Soul, in the very same week that that financial reform bill is up for a final vote.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com

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