Convention: Lobbyist’s `Flea Market’

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A Mitt Romney photo during the third day of the Republican National Convention.

From pitched baseballs to idled rail cars, companies such as Microsoft Corp. and CSX Corp. this week put their names, representatives and issues in front of the elected officials and delegates attending the Republican National convention.

In addition to nominating former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney for president, the quadrennial gathering offered a chance for company representatives and lobbyists to gain unusual access to public officials in an array of settings, ranging from recreational to private hotel and restaurant spots.

“It’s almost like a flea market for political favors with all kinds of politicians there, all kinds of lobbyists and all kinds of special interests,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington-based watchdog group that’s tracking the interaction between lobbyists and delegates.

When the Republican convention closes tonight, the same traveling band of trade groups and corporate representatives will regroup next week in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Democrats will nominate President Barack Obama for re-election.

CSX, headquartered in Jacksonville, used two classic locomotives outfitted in the company’s blue-and-yellow color scheme to create a rail village for hosting receptions. A green carpeted platform provided access to air conditioned cars filled with food and drink — including CSX-branded bottle water.

“This is an opportunity to talk about the benefits of rail with the people who will determine our future,” said Gary Sease, a company spokesman. CSX, the largest eastern U.S. railroad, spent $1.9 million to lobby the federal government in the first six months of 2012 on issues such as renewing funding for surface transportation, Amtrak, and environmental rules.

Microsoft and Verizon Communications Inc. helped raise $20,000 for area youth programs on Wednesday as lawmakers and lobbyists hit and fielded baseballs at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, where the Tampa Bay Rays compete in the American League.

Signs and electronic logos advertised the companies and trade groups that anted as much as $50,000 to sponsor the day at the ballpark, a charitable event held at conventions since 1996 when the home teams are out of town.

Representative Ed Whitfield, a Kentucky Republican who is chairman of the House energy and power subcommittee, mingled with attendees. Peabody Energy Corp. of St. Louis and Pepper Pike, Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp, were also listed among the co-sponsors.

So too was Microsoft, which spent $3.8 million to lobby on issues such as immigration, cybersecurity and online piracy. “We got involved because it benefits youth charities involved in the community, plus, it’s a fun event,” said Christina Pearson, a spokeswoman for the Redmond, Washington-based company.

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