In Denver, A Party To Comply With Ethics Rules

Organizers of parties at the Democratic National Convention in Denver say they comply with the U.S. Congress' strict ethics rules. And though there is less food and no gift bags, one party still had free alcohol and a 41-second "information-gathering opportunity."

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Congress may have clamped down on the kind of parties that lobbyists can throw for elected officials, but that hasn't stopped the nightlife in Denver. Every evening, during this week's Democratic convention, the velvet ropes go up, and delegates get in line for corporate-sponsored parties. But as NPR's Robert Smith reports, new laws mean that the parties aren't what they used to be.

ROBERT SMITH: The invitation for last night's hot party in Denver had a disclaimer, this event complies with the ethics rules of the U.S. Congress. And oh, by the way, there's free booze.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: It was hosted by the Distilled Spirits Council, which represents much of the liquor industry in the United States. They rented out a multi-story nightclub, and you could see the sometimes confusing lobbyist restrictions at work.

On one hand, the parties aren't allowed to have full meals, and sure enough, any elected officials in the crowd had to scrounge little meaty and shrimpy things on toothpicks from waitresses like Sheena Carthy(ph).

Ms. SHEENA CARTHY (Waitress): It's fried eggplant with crabmeat and Bolognese sauce. It's really good.

SMITH: Can I get a fork to eat this with?

Ms. CARTHY: No forks.

SMITH: All right. That was the rules, they said?

Ms. CARTHY: Yes.

SMITH: But on the other side of the party, convention delegates could get shots of very, very expensive liquor, which seems to be allowed under the rules.

Ms. CARTHY: Our favorite one, of course, of the night would be the Johnnie Walker Blue Label. So if you know anything about scotch, it's definitely blended.

SMITH: Now, what would this bottle cost me if I wanted to buy it on my own?

Ms. CARTHY: Well, let's say if you bought it in the bar, it's about $35 an ounce.

SMITH: The host of the party, Peter Cressy from the Distilled Spirits Council, says Congress set the rules, and they just live by them.

Mr. PETER CRESSY (President, Distilled Spirits Council): You have less food. We have no gift bags. You can't serve anything that would substitute for a dinner. You can also make them an educational event, which we applaud because that's a big deal for us.

SMITH: You see, officially, we're not just at a party, but an information-gathering opportunity. Cressy says he has a short lecture prepared for later in the evening. Mostly, though, he says the event is for fun, not necessarily lobbying or discussing legislation, although it is worth noting there's a separate entrance for elected officials only.

When I wander upstairs, I'm stopped by another lobbying group, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Technology. Steve Gates says his group is a co-sponsor of the event, along with the Distilled Spirit folks.

Mr. STEVE GATES (Senior Communications Director, American Coalition for Clean Coal Technology): When you see the ability to co-sponsor an event like this, you at least get yourself in the door to be able to talk to people like yourself.

SMITH: I must not be the only person who thinks that there's not much connection between bourbon and coal.

Mr. GATES: Because of the bourbon, we are able to go out and talk to people who hadn't thought about coal. There's a lot of receptive people here at this reception tonight that at least want to hear more about what we have to say, and it's worked out for us quite well.

SMITH: If those receptive people, as he calls them, included members of Congress discretely enjoying their ethically approved party, I couldn't spot them. The closest I found was a Pat Kreitlow, a state senator representing Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. He's all for the more limited rules.

State Senator PAT KREITLOW (Democrat, Wisconsin): It's nothing like what it used to be, and frankly, that's a very good thing in terms of the evolution between whether we represent the lobbyists of our industries, or do we represent those who really depend on us, whether it's patients or voters.

SMITH: Your constituents wouldn't have a problem with you here drinking some free alcohol from the Distilled Spirits Council?

State Senator PAT KREITLOW: I honestly didn't know that there was free alcohol here because the last place I was at, you know, bourbon on the rocks that I wanted, I had to pay for it, which I don't have any problem with.

SMITH: Hey, wait a minute. It's time for the educational part of the evening. Steve Cressy from the Distilled Spirits Council takes the stage before the band plays and talks for about 41 seconds.

Mr. CRESSY: Be very serious about not driving drunk and not serving teens. Ladies and gentlemen, the great band (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of band playing)

SMITH: He tells people to check out the pamphlets in the back of the room, next to the bar, and of course, enjoy themselves responsibly.

Robert Smith, NPR News, Denver.

Robert Smith

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