Dozens of companies ponied up $10,000 to $150,000 each to sponsor this weekend's National Governors Association meeting in Seattle, gaining special access to the confab of more than 30 state chief executives.
The 65 sponsors, mostly businesses, contributed nearly $2.2 million to the nonprofit host committee that planned the weekend's events. Many of the sponsors either contract with or are regulated by state governments.
The larger the contribution, the more access the sponsor gets to the governors, their families and staffs at a slew of social events, including:
Sponsors also can get into a variety of work sessions, plenary sessions and committee meetings at the Westin Seattle hotel. The gatherings, which feature an array of distinguished speakers, are the official purpose of the NGA meeting, which is held each summer in a different city.
Critics say companies that can afford to sponsor the meeting get access that begets advantages that beget more access.
"They spend their money in a way that helps them maximize their access to and their influence with public officials," said Andy Draheim, West Coast coordinator of the national nonprofit government watchdog group Common Cause.
"It's access that's not afforded to average citizens, and it's part of a broader influence money culture that too often dominates politics really at every level in America today," he said.
Meeting organizers and sponsors bristle at suggestions that there's something untoward going on. NGA events are closed to the public, said spokeswoman Christine LaPaille, both because of security and because the association is a private organization that exists to develop and advocate for policy positions.
"We're conducting the business of our association," LaPaille said. "It's a business meeting. It's not a public meeting."
She said there will be a "designated protest area" to accommodate a planned labor rally featuring U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).
Executives and lobbyists from the sponsoring companies don't need to come to the meeting to have access to the governors and their staffs, LaPaille said.
"These folks have long-standing relationships with governors, and there's no reason for them to come to a social event to get some kind of access," she said.
Washington Gov. Gary Locke (D), the meeting's host, said the event is not a good place for business people to lobby, anyway.
"These events that people are going to include the governors and their children and their spouses," Locke said, recalling that social events at last year's summer meeting in Indianapolis were held at the zoo and a car racetrack. "Nobody talks much business at these things, not if you've got 4- and 5-year old kids and the family there."
Don't tell that to two companies with state contracts that sponsored the meeting -- Bechtel and GTech. Spokespeople from those companies said that the chance to get face time with the governors and their staffs was part of the appeal of the meeting.
Bechtel, an engineering firm that has contracts with several states, has attended almost every NGA meeting over the past 10 years, spokesman Howard Menaker said.
Menaker said the meetings give businesses a chance to discuss with governors "challenges faced by the states, including ways to best meet their needs for new or improved infrastructure."
Bechtel , which gave $25,000, "routinely works with governors, state agencies and staff," he said. NGA meetings, Menaker added, are "certainly more efficient for us to meet with many of them at the same time in the same place, rather than to visit dozens of state capitals."
GTech, a lottery company that has contracts to run lotteries in 26 states, also gave $25,000. It attends the meetings because they give the company "an opportunity to talk with public officials in different forums," said spokeswoman Angela Wiczek.
Battelle, Boeing and Vulcan were happy to give, spokespeople from those companies said, and not because they wanted access to the governors.
Battelle, a technology company, contributed $25,000 to be "a good corporate citizen," said Bill Grinstein, associate director of public affairs for Battelle. The company, which manages the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in eastern Washington, last year got $24 million in state and local government funding, which pales in comparison to its more than $1 billion in federal funding.
Grinstein said the NGA meeting "is an opportunity for our governor to host a great meeting and for this state to look good to a national audience."
The media has been invited to watch and record Locke, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) catching fish thrown by the internationally recognized Pike Place Fishmongers one evening.
Locke estimated that the NGA meeting, which is expected to bring more than 1,000 people to Seattle, will pump $2.5 million worth of tourism dollars into the local economy.
As for the social events at which the sponsors can schmooze with the governors, Grinstein said those are a necessary part of hosting any meeting.
"People generally recognize, this is what it takes to hold a meeting," he said. "Sponsors are typically invited because they pay for it." But, when it comes to impacting companies dealings with government, he said: "I have ever seen a situation where it's had an impact one way or the other."
The following companies and agencies paid to sponsor the National Governors Association summer meeting in Seattle this weekend:
"Emerald" sponsors: $150,000
The Boeing Company
"Platinum" sponsors: $100,000
General Motors Corporation
"Diamond" sponsors: $75,000
"Gold" sponsors: $50,000
AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP
Ford Motor Company
Port of Seattle
CH2M HILL Companies
Washington Wine Commission
World Famous Pike Place Fish
"Silver" sponsors: $25,000
Altria Corporate Services, Inc.
Puget Sound Energy
Purdue Pharma L.P.
"Steel" sponsors: $10,000
Affiliated Computer Services, Inc.
Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
Green Diamond Resource Company
Canadian Consulate General
Group Health Cooperative
Heart of Washington
Premera Blue Cross
Russell Investment Group
Starbucks Coffee Company
Westfield Corporation, Inc.
Brown Bear Car Wash
Merck & Company, Inc.
Preston Gates & Ellis, LLP
Regents Blue Shield
Source: Seattle NGA 2004 host committee
Kenneth P. Vogel is the political reporter for The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune.