Four years ago, the media were intrigued by the possibilities that the Jack Abramoff scandal could bring the Democrats to the House. On Sunday, the New York Times offered a picture of liberal Democrats piling up campaign cash from corporate contributors.
The surprise? Their target was the Congressional Black Caucus. Reporters Eric Lipton and Eric Lichtblau announced:
From 2004 to 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus's political and charitable wings took in at least $55 million in corporate and union contributions, according to an analysis by The New York Times, an impressive amount even by the standards of a Washington awash in cash. Only $1 million of that went to the caucus's political action committee; the rest poured into the largely unregulated nonprofit network.
In 2008, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation spent more on the caterer for its signature legislative dinner and conference - nearly $700,000 for an event one organizer called "Hollywood on the Potomac" - than it gave out in scholarships, federal tax records show.
The black caucus is - in terms of voting records - a very liberal bloc, largely in safe, majority-minority districts. Its chair now is Rep. Barbara Lee of California, who's so left-wing she voted against the war in Afghanistan. She told the Times they were still the ethical vanguard:
"We're unbossed and unbought," said Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California and chairwoman of the caucus. "Historically, we've been known as the conscience of the Congress, and we're the ones bringing up issues that often go unnoticed or just aren't on the table."
The Times never finds the L word, but it does suggest that perhaps black legislators could be accused of accepting cash from questionable corners:
Even as it has used its status as a civil rights organization to become a fund-raising power in Washington, the caucus has had to fend off criticism of ties to companies whose business is seen by some as detrimental to its black constituents. These include cigarette companies, Internet poker operators, beer brewers and the rent-to-own industry....
[Black Caucus Foundation head Elsie] Scott said she, too, had heard criticism that the caucus foundation takes too much from companies seen as hurting blacks. But she said she was still willing to take their money.
"Black people gamble. Black people smoke. Black people drink," she said in an interview. "And so if these companies want to take some of the money they've earned off of our people and give it to us to support good causes, then we take it."
Lipton and Lichtblau added that media companies were in the donating mix, with a major party thrown by Disney and major contributions by Comcast and Time Warner. They also disclosed the New York Times Company was "listed as having paid the foundation $5,000 to $15,000 in 2008. It was the cost of renting a booth to sell newspapers at the annual conference."
Let's hope the Times doesn't expect readers to think it wasn't making a donation. They were hardly going to make five grand selling newspapers.
The real money makers were the decorators and lighting contractors, reported Eric and Eric:
Annual spending on the events, including an annual prayer breakfast that Coca-Cola sponsors and several dozen policy workshops typically sponsored by other corporations, has more than doubled since 2001, costing $3.9 million in 2008. More than $350,000 went to the official decorator and nearly $400,000 to contractors for lighting and show production, according to tax records. (By comparison, the caucus spent $372,000 on internships in 2008, tax records show.)
The Times story comes just as the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation promoted a splashy New York fundraiser for February 26 with the gangsta-rapper Jay Z and the actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith.