Corporate Panhandling in Seattle

The World Trade Organization all but hung out a shingle saying ‘Will trade government influence for cash’. To sponsor its Seattle conference, the WTO is offering executives the chance to rub shoulders with world leaders in an exclusive setting, for just $ 250,000 a pop.


Tired of getting fundraising letters in the mail?

Just imagine how hard it would be to be a corporate CEO. Not only does virtually every politician come hat in hand seeking a campaign contribution, but you are besieged by a long line of nonprofit organizations seeking support for their charitable endeavors. Then your fellow bosses hit you up for contributions to support one or another political lobbying effort. And now there is a new panhandler that CEOs must handle: the mega-intergovernmental conference.

The latest example: The World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle, to be held in late November and early December.

“I know you are on the receiving end of many requests for support from organizations and events, but the hosting of the WTO Ministerial is truly a unique opportunity,” wrote Lawrence Clarkson, chair of the fundraising committee of the “WTO Seattle Host Organization” in a March 15 fundraising appeal to corporate executives. Host Organization co-chairs are Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Phil Condit, CEO of Boeing.

“The Seattle Host Organization is committed to ensuring that the private sector is an integral part of the events surrounding the Ministerial. We are working very closely with the USTR [Office of the U.S. Trade Representative] and WTO officials every step of the way to coordinate schedules and venues to maximize interaction between the officials and the private sector.”

The corporate-sponsored gathering in Seattle is no groundbreaker, as Susan Kruller, media and public relations director for the Seattle Host Organization, notes.

When NATO gathered for its fiftieth anniversary blowout in Washington, D.C. earlier this year, a dozen companies contributed a quarter of a million dollars each to have their CEOs serve as directors of the NATO Summit’s host committee. Others kicked in smaller amounts.

Similar arrangements have been made at a recent G-7 meeting in Denver (presidents and top officials of a group of the world’s most powerful countries meet at the G-7) and a Summit of the Americas in Miami. At a 1996 National Governors Association conference focused on education issues, each governor was paired with a CEO from their state.

Corporate sponsorships of mega-event host committees are now routinely structured into event planning by the U.S. government, Kruller says.

In agreeing to host the WTO meeting in the United States, the U.S. government obligated itself to pick up the incremental costs between holding the meeting in Geneva at the WTO’s headquarters and locating the gathering away from the WTO’s home, Kruller says. The U.S. government turns to the private sector to help defray resulting taxpayer expenses.

The private sector is set to kick in $9.2 million to defray the ministerial’s costs.

When the news first broke of the Seattle Host Organization’s request for contributions, a controversy ensued over Clarkson’s letter’s promise that high donors would be able to attend a conference at which “the private sector will meet senior U.S. trade officials to discuss priorities for the upcoming Round.” That offer drew a rebuke from the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and the promised meeting was cancelled.

Corporate contributors are not being denied all goodies, however. Those donating at the Emerald Level, a $250,000 contribution, are entitled to send five guests to the Host Organization’s opening and closing receptions and to an exclusive ministerial dinner. They can send four guests to private sector conferences the Host Organization is arranging. They are provided with briefing updates on the ministerial’s progress, assistance with room reservations, media assistance and hospitality service. Their logos are permitted to appear on the Host Organization’s web site and they are given signage and display of corporate materials. Companies at the Emerald Level are Allied Signal/Honeywell, Deloitte & Touche, Ford, GM, Microsoft, Nextel, Boeing, US West, plus the State of Washington.

Lesser benefits are conferred on those making less generous donations. The Diamond Level supporters ($150,000 to $249,999) are Activate.com, UPS and Weyerhaeuser. Platinum Level supporters ($75,000 to $149,999) are AT&T, Bank of America, Columbia Resource Group, Eddie Bauer, Expeditors International of WA, Hewlett Packard, Seagram’s, Preston Gates & Ellis and The Production Network. Gold Level supporters ($25,000 to $74,999) include Caterpillar, IBM, Lucent and U.S. Bancorp.

In addition to an extra opportunity to rub shoulders with policymakers and high-ranking bureaucrats, what the corporate contributors to the Seattle event and similar events really get in exchange for their dollars is a sort of hyper-niche image advertising, with a group of hundreds of policymakers as their target.

In most instances, at least, the corrupting element is not a quid pro quo, but rather something more profound. Corporate sponsorships at the Seattle trade ministerial and other meetings are another indicia, another reinforcement, another reminder to the government officials of their obligations to Big Business. The sponsorships are a corruption of atmosphere and place.

Happily, the Seattle meeting will include a counterbalancing factor: tens of thousands of activists who plan to take to the streets to protest the WTO’s record of riding roughshod over consumers, workers, the environment and any non-commercial values. Hopefully this mass citizens’ mobilization will force the trade officials to confront their collective betrayal of the public trust.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. They are co-authors of “Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy” (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999).