Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Did DNC Fundraiser Really Rake in a Million Bucks?

The headlines on most of the gay blogs were pretty similar on Friday, describing the DNC gay fundraiser as having brought in a million dollars despite a boycott and protests. It was, supposedly, more money than last year, proof positive that lashing out against fundraisers isn't going to work, and a message to the pesky blogosphere: Just give up! Many a commenter and some bloggers themselves took it hard, beside themselves that all of their organizing apparently just didn't work. No matter that many big names pulled out of the fundraiser, the DNC was supposedly still able to fill its coffers.

But is that really true? All the headlines and links were based on one story, with one unnamed source. The Advocate's Kerry Eleveld, in a report about the event itself and the protests outside, reported that a "Democratic Party source" told her that the fundraiser brought in a million dollars, supposedly 250K more than last year's supposed 750K, a number to which she also gave no attribution but which we can assume came from the same source.

This claim -- and it was a claim, not an on-the-record fact backed up with any presented data -- was actually buried in Eleveld's story, so I am in no way charging that ace reporter and colleague Eleveld, who I have on the show a lot, was overblowing it. The headline led with the million dollar quote -- without saying it was a "claim" or came from a "source" -- and whoever did that at the Advocate bears some responsibility. And blogs and other sites linking to it could be a bit more discerning when linking to something just because of a headline, particularly if the claim itself is less than definitive.

Leaving aside the fact that, in a year in which a Democratic president is in office for the first time in 8 years -- and thus there are more people sucking up and wanting jobs and wanting to make contacts and thus would attend a fundraiser -- the one million dollar figure still raised the eyebrows of several Democratic Party insiders with whom I spoke.

That is particularly true since Andy Tobias, the openly gay treasurer of the DNC, was fretting about the event and complaining to people, according to three individuals who'd interacted with him and with whom I spoke in the days before the fundraiser (and I've spoken to several others who confirmed this to me after the fundraiser as well). Publicly, DNC officials and hosts like Barney Frank were keeping a stiff upper lip, trying to tamp down the power of the blogs and the influence of all those who dropped out of the fundraiser. But privately, Tobias had pretty much thrown in the towel on the event.

There was no official response in Eleveld's story from the DNC itself -- no line like, "the DNC would not confirm the amount" -- so we can pretty much assume her "Democratic Party" source is inside the DNC, giving her the info on background and thus not giving any on-the-record comment confirming or denying. (If the source was not in the DNC, after all, she'd likely have gone to the DNC for official comment.) And who would that source be inside the DNC? If it were Andy Tobias himself, it wouldn't exactly be an unbiased source. I'd want much more information to back up the figures. The same goes if it were any of his underlings. And if the figure is accurate, why not just say it on-the-record? Why not at least allow Eleveld to attribute "a DNC source" -- if indeed it is -- even if it's on background and not for attribution, rather than "a Democratic Party" source? Why keep it so distanced?

When I contacted the DNC's LGBT fundraising director, Tom Petrillo, for confirmation of the one million dollar amount, he bumped me up after a day to press office, where Caroline Ciccone took another day to get back to me, only to tell me that the DNC would not confirm the one million dollar amount and said the DNC doesn't confirm fundraising event figures. But in searching around and looking at the coverage of other fundraisers, I found this story, which, for example, attributes Obama's bringing in 3 million dollars at an event recently to DNC "officials." And this one has many details and implies they came from the DNC. At the very least, the DNC doesn't seem to want to be so distanced from the reporting on the numbers in these stories.

Several Democratic insiders tell me that DNC officials have much latitude in moving money around and attributing funds from other fundraisers -- or funds from regular donors, including members of the DNC's LGBT Leadership Council, who donate in increments throughout the year -- to this fundraiser to swell the numbers. I offered some of this analysis on the show on Friday, raising skepticism about the reports on the blogs, after having spoken to one Democratic insider. But over the past few days I've spoken to several other people familiar with fundraising and the DNC who expressed skepticism. Pam Spaulding as well has spoken to an insider about this in an update to her post.

DNC officials can apparently make it look like they made one million dollars even if they only made 250K from the event.

Questions I have for the DNC include these: Did all of the one million dollars come from this fundraiser? How many people are members of the LGBT Leadership Council, and are their donations throughout the year included in this fundraiser? What is the annual dues structure? Don't they then get "comped" to the dinner because they've payed their dues throughout the year? How many people who were not members of the Leadership Council dropped out of the dinner, and what amount of money did that account for? Are you counting all of the LGBT money raised throughout the year in the dinner? How much of the one million is straight money and how much is gay money?

More questions: Why didn't you fill that room at the Mandarin Oriental and how many at the dinner were comped? Weren't all the elected officials comped, and weren't all those used in the fundraising letter -- those names that didn't drop out -- comped? How many people actually paid for the dinner and how many maxed out in contributions, paying 30K? How many paid the minimum of 1000 dollars? Does the treasurer have the authority to raise money and then apply it internally to wherever he would like it to sit? Does every donor whose money was applied to the event know that their money was applied to an LGBT-specific event? Has all of the money been brought in, or is the one million dollars including pledges or future dues of the LGBT Leadership Council members? How many attendees asked for a refund? Would the DNC provide such a refund? When is the next LGBT-specific fundraising event, since this was so record-smashing successful?

I invited Tom Petrillo to come on the show so I could discuss such issues, but as I said, he bumped up to the press office and the DNC's response ended there.

So all we have to go on is Eleveld's source -- a source so eager to report the earnings to her that she was able to get it in a story the morning following the fundraiser -- and an email letter that Andy Tobias apparently sent around to donors/attendees after the event. What is telling about the letter is that Tobias doesn't say what a huge, record-breaking, amazing success the event supposedly was, nor mention that it brought in more than last year, if indeed that is true. You'd think that if it did do so well, even if he didn't want to give out the figures, he'd spend more time talking about how it did better in spite of the protests, or at least that it was a huge success, and less time talking about grilled cheese sandwiches.

We now need a confirmation of the one million dollar number from the DNC, on the record, with a clear breakdown of where the money comes from. With the absence of that no one should assume this fundraiser did well at all, as all of the evidence -- and the statements from Tobias to various people before the fundraiser -- points in the opposite direction. People who want to pressure the Democrats should continue to target the DNC fundraisers since it clearly really hit a nerve, to the point where they had to spin something out immediately and go so far with the numbers -- like the Iranian ayatollahs -- in an attempt to nip any revolution in the bud, even though it's now raised many more questions.

And there must be a long list of DNC LGBT fundraisers coming up. After all, if this one did so well you'd think the DNC is planning dozens of them across the country in coming months, right?

UPDATE: I should have included that Dan Savage had expressed his skepticism as well, posting his observations in two different posts immediately after the event. And Americablog discussed rumors that the event only brought in $250,000 and notes that the FEC reports next month will tell us more.