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Ayotte defends holding campaign fund-raiser with lobbyists at exclusive Utah ski resort

Senior Political Reporter

January 20. 2014 6:12PM

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte's campaign finance chairman and spokesman defended her fund-raising practices Monday after she was mentioned prominently in a weekend report on a "loophole" in a gift-ban law that allows lobbyists and corporate interests to indirectly pay for "destination fund-raisers," where they then mingle in exclusive vacation spots with members of Congress.

Republican Ayotte, according to The New York Times, "kicked off the new year" at the Park City, Utah, ski resort, where she held an event for her campaign committee at the "multimillion-dollar home of Gordon Smith," a former senator from Oregon who is now a lobbyist and chief executive of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The association, according to the report, "has a long list of high-stakes matters before the Senate Commerce Committee," on which Ayotte sits as a member.

The report quotes Ayotte's chief of staff as saying there was no connection between financial support she may have received from the broadcasters and her support for their position on a key broadcast spectrum issue before the committee.

Her campaign finance chairman, Steve Duprey, told the New Hampshire Union Leader it was "manifestly unfair" for the Times to imply that Ayotte could be influenced by the fact that the association's head hosted the fund-raiser.

Ayotte spokesman Jeff Grappone said her campaign paid for expenses associated with the fund-raiser at the Smith home.

Grappone said Ayotte would have "preferred to stay home in New Hampshire with her family rather than travel of Utah for a day-and-a-half over the Christmas break, but the reality is she has to raise funds in-state and out-of-state for her campaign."

Ayotte will be up for reelection in 2016.

Grappone said the event was held in Utah because her campaign "worked with" the campaign of Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, "which was already having a fund-raiser at that time.

"Senator Hatch attended an event of hers and she attended an event of his," Grappone said.

Duprey said he did not know why Utah was chosen, but said professional fund-raisers hired by campaign often set up such events to maximize contributions.

"She follows all campaign finance laws and contributions are fully disclosed," Grappone said, and Duprey added, "Every single senator fund-raises this way" and Ayotte followed all laws and rules.

Grappone said Ayotte meets with people "on all sides of issues throughout the year, both in New Hampshire and in Washington" and said she "is beholden to no one."

The Times report says that such "destination fund-raisers," where lobbyists and corporate executives travel to sometimes exclusive venues to spend time with members of Congress, are legal under a "loophole" in gift-ban law passed seven years ago.

After a corruption scandal, Congress in 2007 banned lobbyists from giving lawmakers virtually anything of value.

"But," the Times reports, "as is the norm in Washington, the lawmakers and lobbyists have figured out a workaround: Political campaigns and so-called leadership PACs controlled by the lawmakers now pay the expenses for the catering and the lawmakers' lodging at these events."

Lobbyists and corporate or other special interest PACS contribute between $1,000 and $5,000 to the members' committees or leadership PACs, so they are legal contributions.

Those contributions indirectly foot the bills for the destination events, the Times pointed out.

The Times reported that Ayotte, after a morning of skiing, joined corporate executives and lobbyists at a "mountaintop resort for lunch, her face flush from the mountain sun."

"Anyone who wants to do some runs with me, I would love to," she reportedly tells her guests.

One of the interests of the broadcasters association, whose chief lobbyist, former Oregon Senator Smith, hosted the Ayotte fund-raiser, is a planned auction of television broadcast spectrum.

Ayotte, three weeks before the Utah event, spoke in favor of the industry's position at a commerce committee hearing.

Ayotte chief of staff John Easton told the Times that Ayotte's statement at the hearing was unrelated to any financial support she received and that "numerous constituents have raised the interference issue" with her.

Ayotte spokesman Grappone told the Times' "characterization" of Ayotte's work on the commerce committee "is misleading and biased."

Grappone said the spectrum auction is "of paramount importance to New Hampshire, particularly WMUR," the state's largest television station.

He said that as a border state, there could be television service interference "if the auction is mishandled," and "Senator Ayotte is proactively trying to address these concerns before the auction process begins so it doesn't become a problem for New Hampshire down the road."

Grappone said Ayotte has worked with the other members of the New Hampshire congressional delegation "and other border state senators from both parties to protect viewers" and noted her remarks at the December hearing cited in the Times report were "New Hampshire-specific."

Duprey said contributors constantly appear before members of Congress at hearings.

"By that standard," he said, "no member of the United States Senate could ever have a fund-raiser."

Although Ayotte was prominent in the Times story, other lawmakers were also mentioned, including Republican U.S. Reps. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, who hosted fund-raiser in Vail, Colo., and Ann Wagner of Missouri, who reportedly sent invitations to lobbyists for a "Spa Weekend Trip" in Las Vegas in March.

Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer of Maryland and Xavier Becerra of California "picked the Ritz-Carlton's Dorado Beach hotel in Puerto Rico" for their destination events, the Times said.

Veteran Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., will host an event at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills this weekend for an event tied to the Grammy Awards, the Times reported.

New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who is up for reelection this year, was not mentioned in the report. She has held or appeared at numerous out-of-state fund-raisers, including a five-candidate event featuring a concert by superstar Beyonce last summer, but a Shaheen spokesman said, "We haven't done something like this."

Also last summer, she sparked criticism when she missed a key closed-door Senate meeting regarding the filibuster issue to travel to New York City for a campaign fund-raiser.

Duprey said, "There was nothing illegal or unethical about the way" either senator raised money.

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