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Sunday, January 16, 2005 - Page updated at 12:08 A.M.

Deep pockets ponying up for a $40 million bash

The Associated Press

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Enlarge this photoRON EDMONDS / AP

Construction continues last week on the presidential inaugural stand in front of the White House, where President Bush and his family and guests will watch the inaugual parade after he is sworn in Thursday.

WASHINGTON — It will take President Bush less than a minute to take the oath of office Thursday, but before the inaugural events are over, some $40 million may be spent on parades, parties and pyrotechnics.

And that doesn't include the costs of the most intense security operation in inaugural history.

The amount spent on this year's festivities will rival the $40 million raised to celebrate Bush's first inauguration in 2001, and will exceed the $33 million spent by President Clinton in 1993 when Democrats returned to the White House for the first time in 12 years.

While the partying is being paid for privately, there have been some mutterings about the scale of the celebrations at a time of war and natural disaster.

Money for the celebratory activities is being raised by the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which as of the end of last week had received $18 million, much in six-figure donations from wealthy supporters and corporate sponsors.

The huge sums have raised concerns that donors with matters before Congress are buying access to politicians. Critics also note that the private funding of inaugurations has become another avenue for "soft money," large unregulated contributions to get into the political system.

"It's troubling for democracy because it gives those people greater access to persons in power, and that raises real questions," said William Grover, a political scientist at St. Michael's College in Vermont.

Although Congress set new contribution limits in 2002 and banned the use of soft money in political campaigns, the law does not apply to inaugurations and political conventions. Individuals, corporations and unions can give whatever amount they want — although Bush's planners set a maximum of $250,000.

The committee, which is not required to release a list of donors until 60 days after the event, says 44 donors have given $250,000 to qualify as "underwriters." The top donors include such Fortune 500 giants as AT&T, Exxon Mobil Corp., Ford Motor Co., Time Warner and United Parcel Service.

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Individuals who have given the maximum include Michael Dell, founder of Dell Computer; former Enron President Richard Kinder; Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner; and Dallas oilman T. Boone Pickens.

The big donors are rewarded with a variety of inaugural packages, including meetings with political VIPs, tickets to the swearing-in ceremony and parade, and hard-to-get entry into the official inaugural balls and dinners.

The events begin Tuesday with a salute to the troops and a youth concert. On Wednesday there will be a celebration on the Ellipse, including a fireworks show, and three candlelight dinners.

On Thursday afternoon, after Bush takes the oath of office at the Capitol, some 11,000 people will take part in a parade from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue, to the White House. That night there will be nine official balls.

Bleacher seats for the parade cost $15, $60 and $125 apiece, while a ticket to a ball — with the exception of one ball for military personnel, which is free — runs $150.

The office of the first lady said Laura Bush will personally pay for her outfits to inaugural events, which include gowns designed by Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and Peggy Jennings.

"Precedent suggests that inaugural festivities should be muted — if not canceled — in wartime," Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y. wrote Bush on Tuesday.

Eight congressional Democrats from the Washington area on Wednesday wrote another letter to the president complaining of what they said was the unfair financial burden being imposed on the District of Columbia.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams has estimated it will cost the district $17.3 million to help pay for security at the first post-Sept. 11 inauguration, which includes 6,000 law officers and 2,500 military personnel to guard the 250,000 people at the swearing-in and the half-million expected to line the parade route.

Williams, in a letter last month to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, said he can use $5.4 million from a fund for special events in the capital, but the other $11.9 million will have to come from the city's federal homeland-security budget.

The Homeland Security Department on Thursday confirmed the $11.9 million in security and other costs are eligible to be repaid with the city's Urban Area Strategic Initiative (USAI) grant.

But the mayor's spokeswoman, Sharon Gang, said the city is still trying to get the federal government to repay it for all inaugural costs.

The expenses, Williams said, include $5.3 million in overtime costs for police officers and $2.9 million to cover logistics costs, such as transportation, lodging, box lunches, water and granola bars.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is responsible for the swearing-in ceremony, has $1.25 million to handle various production costs, such as staffing and printing, as well as catering and flowers for the luncheon in the Capitol after the oath of office.

The Architect of the Capitol also has a budget of $2.8 million as part of a construction project to spruce up the West Front of the Capitol, where the ceremonies will take place.

Inauguration day, with its street closings and heightened security, will also be a holiday for federal workers in the Washington area. That, according to the Office of Personnel Management, costs taxpayers an estimated $66 million.

Information on inauguration donors was reported by Gannett News Service

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