PJ Media

Breakfast with Nancy: One Hour. Five Grand.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is inviting medical high rollers to join her at the swanky new W Hotel in downtown Washington. The price of this one-hour soiree? As much as $5000.

Hoping to capitalize on the passage of the health care bill — and the massive government expenditures it dictates, estimated to be at least $1 trillion — Speaker Pelosi’s staff is inviting (pdf) “the health care community” to join her in the Studio Room of the W Hotel in what Carmela Clendening (also listed on the invitation) said is an annual rite.

She told Pajamas Media that this specific breakfast was small and exclusive:

It is 20 to 25 people that attend. It is focused on that industry.

She did not say how many other breakfasts she was organizing.

The Pelosi health care breakfast is not illegal. As the invitation makes clear, the amounts of the donations are carefully limited to what federal election law permits: $2,400 for the primary election and $2,400 more for the general election. But it is a close-up look at the way political figures use their influence to privately “shake down” various lobbyists and industries. The invitation is particularly interesting in light of Pelosi’s own complaint, before she became speaker, that Washington suffered from a “culture of corruption” from lobbyists.

Just this week, the Center for Public Integrity reported that since 1987 Pelosi has raised more than $20 million in campaign contributions from individual and corporate PACs. This figure is extraordinary, since she has run largely unopposed in elections for her seat in liberal San Francisco. (The Center reports her biggest financial contributor was the top defense lawyer for Enron.)

The breakfast invitation itself, by the way, is not for her “leadership PAC,” but for her general re-election campaign. Checks are to be made out to “Nancy Pelosi for Congress.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the liberal speaker has raised $2.6 million in 2009-2010 for both her personal campaign and her “leadership PACs.” The leadership PACs enable Pelosi herself to be a kingmaker, giving political contributions to those who are her allies or can be future allies. In 2008 she raised a whopping $3.8 million from PACS and contributors.

Health professionals constitute the top contributor to the speaker in the 2009-2010 political cycle. Over the last two years, the Center for Responsive Politics reports she has garnered nearly $200,000 from health care individuals and their political action committees.

But she’s still on the prowl within the health care industry, as the invitation demonstrates.

When contacted, the speaker’s office referred Pajamas Media to the Democratic Campaign Congressional Committee (DCCC), the fundraising arm of the Democratic Party. The DCCC, however, sent our call back to the speaker’s office.  The speaker’s staff then referred us to Margaret “Peggy” Wilmoth, who was described to us as one of Pelosi’s “top health care advisors.”

This call exposed another loophole in the Washington influence-peddling business, even inside the speaker’s own office.  In her voicemail message, Ms. Wilmoth describes herself as a “Robert Wood Johnson health care fellow.” As it turns out, the liberal Robert Wood Johnson Foundation runs a health fellows program that places individuals into congressional offices free of charge.

Ms. Wilmoth, a Ph.D and a registered nurse at the University of North Carolina, is listed as a Robert Wood Johnson Fellow for Speaker Pelosi for 2009-2010.

According to the foundation, the grants to the fellows are as high as $165,000 per year. The foundation’s website says: “During these assignments, fellows are full-time, contributing participants in the policy process with members of Congress.”

In effect, Pelosi receives free labor from this staffer.

Traditionally, there are strict $50 limits in accepting gifts from outsiders. The House rules say a gift is “any gratuity, favor, discount, entertainment, hospitality, loan, or other item having monetary value,” including services.

As of this posting, there is no word from Speaker Pelosi’s office about the propriety of receiving a free employee as an advisor in her office. Is this a “gift”?

PJM also placed a call to the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, better known as the House Ethics Committee. So far, there has been no response, but PJM will update when we have further information.

Pelosi, who has been a strong advocate of stiff campaign finance rules, was herself fined $21,000 by the Federal Election Commission in 2004 for improperly accepting donations over federal limits. She returned more than $100,000 from her leadership PAC, Team Majority, after the fine. Team Majority was closed down after the FEC fine.

Interestingly, one of the recipients from Team Majority was Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who himself was fined $2,500 for taking the money from Team Majority. Van Hollen today serves as a ranking Democratic Party fundraiser. He is chairman of the DCCC and assistant to the speaker for the 2009-2010 election cycle.

Van Hollen has been credited with raking in nearly $80 million for the DCCC. In contrast, Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), his Republican counterpart in the National Republican Congressional Committee, has only raised $60 million.

As outspoken as Speaker Pelosi has been about keeping big money out of politics, it appears that this may not extend to her own re-election campaigns. Unless the upcoming breakfast is truly spectacular, it would seem that the $5,000 tab is more for the company, and the access it gives, than the eggs.