TAMPA, Fla. -- Liz Bartolomeo just had one question: "Where are all the delegates?"
Monday at the Republican National Convention -- postponed for a day because of Hurricane Issac, which ended up mostly missing the city -- was calm. The convention, held in the Tampa Bay Times Forum downtown, convened and immediately adjourned until Tuesday. But the media center, a block away in the Tampa Convention Center, was buzzing with activity, as a slew of Republican celebrities -- including Herman Cain and Sen. Ron Johnson -- made their way around the room, granting interviews with Geraldo Rivera, Fox News, NPR and others.
But the rank and file delegates were conspicuously absent. Bartolomeo, communications manager at the Sunlight Foundation, wondered if they were all out partying. Bartolomeo's organization is geared toward shining light on the how money is corrupting politics. She and her colleague, Keenan Steiner, are monitoring the money lavished on delegates and politicians, often through "in-kind" donations like parties.
For instance, Steiner says, AT&T is suspected of renting out a popular Tampa restaurant, Jackson's Bistro. "It's closed to the public until after Thursday," he says. "It costs a lot of money to rent out a restaurant like that. You're talking about a restaurant that must do $50,000 to $100,000 of business a day."
Who benefits? Steiner says the parties are not just for the federal politicians, but also the state ones, many of whom are delegates. "It's for AT&T to put on a good face with the lawmakers of the state and get in good with whomever gets elected."
Although there are limits to how much money people can donate to a candidate, there's no limit on how much they can give to the Republican National Committee to put on its convention. So there's ample opportunity to influence the party. Companies that give money will have to report how much they spend, but the reports won't be public until mid-October, Steiner says, just weeks before the election.
It isn't just Republicans who are being influenced. Many of the same companies in Tampa will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, next week for the Democratic National Convention, throwing more parties. "It's a good bet they will play both sides of the aisle," he says.
The Democratic Party did establish spending donor spending limits for its convention. The Dems are limiting donations from individuals to $100,000 and no donations from corporations, PACs or lobbyists are being accepted. But the moral high ground gets slippery.
"They tried to be holier than thou and then they realized they weren't getting any money," Steiner says. As a result, some PACs have stepped up to throw parties not officially connected to the Democratic National Convention, but aimed at keeping delegates happy, he says.
The Sunlight Foundation hopes to expose how corporations are influencing the political process by following who is spending what. It has established a database of who is holding which parties at the conventions.
"All this money is being spent and it's not being reported in a timely fashion," Bartolomeo says. "We hope that this [information] flicks on a light in people's minds."
Joe Tarr is in Tampa with reporters from WORT 89.9 FM covering the Republican National Convention and will move on to Charlotte to cover the Democratic National Convention.