Ethics Watchdogs Planning to Crash Convention Parties

Fun could be off the table this year as nonprofits promise "gotcha" moments for lobbyists, politicians.

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The opening of the Republican National Convention in the Coliseum in Chicago, Ill., June 8, 1920.

For decades, a large part of the allure of political conventions was the parties. In recent years, that's gotten complicated. The economy is bad, but more than that, the optics are bad. A lobbyist and congressman cozying up over a martini can be recorded on an iPhone and uploaded to the Internet within seconds.

At this year's conventions, two nonprofits say they're making it their goal to catch those in bed together who shouldn't be.

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Armed with cameras and the press, the Sunlight Foundation and Public Citizen plan to crash convention parties in a double-teaming effort.

The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to increasing transparency and accountability in politics, will focus on discovering instances of corporate influence peddling, and will be tracking the convention parties at its site Political Party Time.

Public Citizen, a consumer rights advocacy group, will focus on violators of an ethics rule put in place in 2007 that prevents lobbying organizations from hosting an event honoring a lawmaker.

Together, the groups plan to "bird-dog" partygoers, a term used to mean forcing politicians to address an issue instead of running from it, just as a bird dog persistently hunts and retrieves a bird.

In 2008, a similar effort at the conventions successfully shut down a party of House freshman Democrats. "They were just elected on the ethics platform," Craig Holman of Public Citizen tells Whispers. "And then they had a party in violation of ethics rules. It was sponsored by a lobbying entity, and honoring the freshman Democrats."

If all goes according to plan this year, the groups won't be shutting down just one party. Sunlight and Public Citizen are currently collecting a list of the hundreds to be hosted at the convention and who's behind them. That list will be released later this week.

Partygoers can't say they weren't warned. On August 1, Sunlight, Public Citizen, and six other accountability groups sent a letter to lawmakers asking them not to participate in any lobbyist-funded parties.

"Evening parties at the conventions are going to be closely monitored by the press," the letter warned them. "Any violations of the ethics rules will likely be broadcast on television and written in the newspapers."

But there may be fewer partygoers to bird-dog than expected.

Lobbyists for the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the American Chemistry Council recently told National Journal they were staying home.

A Democratic lobbyist told Whispers that "no one" is going to the conventions because of the recent ethics rules, as well as the Obama administration's hostility toward lobbyists. Republicans, the lobbyist said, are following suit.

Public Citizen says it isn't convinced.

"They said that back in 2008, about not going to the convention," says Holman. "And they all went and partied anyway."

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  • Elizabeth Flock is a staff writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at eflock@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter and Facebook.