Party Favors: House Staffers’ Event Planning Biz Specializes In Bashes For Top Dem Rep

December 11, 2009 7:13 a.m.

A party planning side business run by three current and former congressional staffers raked in over $20,000 last year from lobbyists holding events to honor Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) — whose own communications director is co-founder of the firm.

The apparent arrangement between Thompson and the business, Chic Productions, at once allows private interests to get closer to the congressman’s office and gives the staffers a way to dip a straw into the river of outside money flowing through Capitol Hill.

Chic Productions offers “high style events with simple elegance” and advertises its previous work executing “congressional events and fundraising parties.” One of Chic’s principals was quoted in 2007 saying congressional events make up roughly 90 percent of the firm’s business.The three women who run Chic are: Dena Graziano, Thompson’s communications director since 2006; Michone Johnson, chief counsel for the House Judiciary Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee; and Michelle Persaud, formerly of the House Judiciary Committee, now corporate counsel at T-Mobile.

Graziano’s bio on Chic’s Web site says she has “straddled the fine line between politics and entertainment as an event and communications strategist to some of the nation’s most well known personalities.” Johnson’s boasts that, “As a lawyer, Michone has honed her planning skills by executing everything from intense negotiations and member briefings to happy hours birthday parties, and staff retirement parties.”

A Chic floral display with the congressional seal at ’07 Thompson event

The extent of the business Chic has done for Thompson remains unclear because lobbyist disclosure statements that reveal the arrangement have only recently been required, and comprehensive data is available only for 2008. But besides the lobbyist receptions, Chic has put on at least six other Thompson-linked events.

Lobbyists spend millions of dollars each year wining and dining lawmakers at receptions held in their honor. The events serve many purposes, among them gaining valuable access to members of Congress and staffers, and building good will in a relaxed social format. But actually paying staffers to organize events to honor their bosses is a new twist on the old practice.

As chair of the Committee on Homeland Security, Thompson is among the most powerful Democrats in the House. He has been under an ethical cloud since last week when the Washington Post reported on allegations by Homeland Security Committee staffers that he held a hearing on credit cards to squeeze donations out of industry lobbyists. One committee staffer said she was fired for raising objections to “inappropriate lobbyist requests.” Thompson denies the allegations, which are under investigation by the House ethics panel.

Thompson at Chic “Chairman Reception” in 2007

In a six-week period in late 2008, four companies paid Chic $22,500 to plan events to honor Thompson, according to lobbying disclosures reviewed by TPMmuckraker. The companies were private prison contractor Corrections Corporation of America ($10,000), lobbying powerhouse Patton Boggs ($5,000), Pepsico ($5,000), and software giant Oracle ($2,500).

As yet another way for lobbyists to create close ties with a congressman’s office, the apparent arrangement between Chic and Thompson should raise eyebrows, according to one watchdog group.

“Any time a member of Congress perhaps directs business to somebody who is a close personal friend or employee, the member’s constituents should at the very least ask questions about why this was the case,” says Dave Levinthal of the Center for Responsive Politics. He adds, “If a staffer who receives a taxpayer-funded salary is using that position to further their personal wealth, that could be of concern.”

Chic’s links with Thompson are not limited to the 2008 lobbyist receptions.

The congressman’s campaign committee paid the firm $5,000 in December 2007 for a fundraising event, and Chic’s Web site shows Thompson giving a toast at a “Chairman’s Reception” that year. Chic also planned the Congressional Black Caucus Back to Blues event in 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009. The invitation for the ’06 party — held at the landmark 101 Constitution Ave. — identifies the host of the “celebration of Blues” as Thompson.

The spread at the 2007 “Back to Blues” party

And finally, Chic’s Web site says the firm organized a 2008 CBC “policy conference” in Tunica, Mississippi — Thompson’s home state. The four-day conference featured a target shooting event, the Bennie G. Thompson Sporting Clays Challenge.

The three women who run Chic, as well as the congressman’s office, declined requests for comment.

According to financial disclosure statements, Graziano, the Thompson staffer, claimed $12,000 income from Chic for 2006-2008. Johnson, of the Judiciary Committee, claimed $4,000 in 2008 and some amount over $5,000 in 2007.

(Special thanks to TPM Reader DRR)

Late Update: Patton Boggs spokesperson Rebecca Carr sends this statement along:

We were a sponsor of a CBC event (there were other sponsors as well) honoring the congressman. Being a “sponsor” meant nothing more than that we contributed funds. We routinely sponsor Congressional Black Caucus events. This event was no different. We had no role in planning the event or selecting those who did.

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