Seattle makes an offer to big business: Pony up for our World Trade conference, we'll get you face time with government officials. The feds say: Cancel that sale.

In Seattle, "public-private partnerships" have been raised to an art form. But this time, the artistes may have gone too far. Local organizers of the World Trade Organization meeting—which will bring hordes of high-level government officials from around the world to Seattle in November—stand accused of selling access to those officials in order to raise money for the event.

Last month, the privately run Seattle Host Organization (SHO), which is chaired by Bill Gates and Boeing CEO Phil Condit, sent out a letter to approximately 100 corporations that have an interest in the outcome of the trade talks, asking them to consider becoming "sponsors" of the meeting. The letter explicitly suggests that those who contribute high amounts will get extra face time with government bigwigs and that such opportunities will increase with the "level of sponsorship."

For example, the most generous donors will get from one to five seats at the formal ministerial dinner, depending on how much they give. The SHO letter also says that sponsors who "sign on" before May 1 will be included in a July "preparatory conference" in Seattle "where the private sector will meet with senior US trade officials to discuss priorities for the upcoming Round [of trade negotiations]."

That statement set off alarms with the feds. Pate Felts, an official with the US Trade Representative's office in Washington, DC, sent Seattle organizers a letter two weeks ago, saying that the solicitation was "cause for serious concern. . . . [It] could be read to suggest that by virtue of their contributions certain firms or individuals will gain privileged access to US Government policymakers. . . . We do not and will not premise [our] meetings on contributions," he said. In addition, Felts wrote, "to the best of my knowledge no US Government agency or trade official has committed to participate in" any July meeting.

He closed his letter by asking that SHO establish a new guideline whereby all draft solicitations be first sent to the feds for review. "We request that you put that guideline into practice immediately," he wrote.

Officials with the Seattle Host Organization say they have revised their fund-raising letter, but insist that it's all just a big misunderstanding. "It's a total misconception to think that sponsorship gives you some kind of special access to government officials," argues Mike Mullen, deputy chair of SHO's fund-raising committee. Besides, he says, "The government people are going to be so tied up in negotiations that we don't even think they're going to have much time for any kind of meetings with the private sector."

But that's a far cry from the picture painted in SHO's fund-raising materials, which promise a "highly interactive" session. "We are working very closely with [WTO officials] every step of the way," SHO's letter says, " . . . to maximize interaction between the officials and the private sector."

Of course, in the American political system, where the prevailing principle is that money buys access, one can only feel shocked, shocked, that big donors would be rewarded with the ear of public officials. On the other hand, the WTO "ministerial" meeting is not a $500-a-plate campaign fund raiser; it's a formal negotiating session about international trade policy. "To actually sell access to the government officials in a formal up-front way is stepping over even the low bar that's set for these things," says Daniel Seligman, who heads the responsible trade program of the Sierra Club in Washington, DC.

The selling of special privileges particularly chafes groups such as Seligman's, who have serious reservations about the free-trade free love championed by the WTO. "When you get a lot of big businesses sitting around a table trying to think up ways to free up trade," he says, "one method they can all agree on is: weaken environmental standards."

Seligman will be in town for the WTO meeting, but he is not likely to be invited to the "business conferences" that SHO is putting on alongside the ministerial. (It's common for such "conferences" to be held parallel with government trade summits.) Says SHO's Mullen: "There are people out there who are just totally against this whole process, who don't like the WTO, who don't like trade liberalization, who don't think that increasing trade—and probably even increasing economic growth—is a good thing, because it hurts the environment. We intend to provide a forum where views like that can be discussed and where those voices can be heard. What we won't tolerate is people who are just out to sabotage things and are going to go to the press and make statements that aren't true, just to try to give the thing a bad name or cause it to lose credibility."

According to the fund-raising package sent out last month, companies that pony up $75,000 or more (Platinum level) will get to send one person to SHO's business conference, while Diamond level donors ($150,000 to $250,000) will get two places, and Emerald level donors ($250,000 and up), four. Attendance at the conference "will be limited," SHO's letter says, "allowing for the greatest possible interaction between participants, government officials, and guest speakers." At the ministerial dinner, sponsors will also get "preferential seating placement . . . to the maximum extent possible, consistent with State Department protocol."

Mullen says, "None of that should in any way be interpreted to indicate some kind of special access to government officials for the sponsors, because there isn't going to be any." The dinner, he says, will be attended by 600 people, and other receptions attended by thousands, while the business conference "will be open to a lot of other people who aren't sponsors."

In any case, Mullen notes, the kinds of companies that can contribute at the highest levels already enjoy plenty of open doors. "A CEO from one of these companies can pick up the telephone and get access to anybody he wanted in the US government any day of the week. He wouldn't have to come out here to Seattle." (Of course, foreign officials are another story.)

In his letter to SHO, Assistant US Trade Representative Pate Felts seemed most concerned about the promise of contact with government officials at SHO's "preparatory conference" in July. He declined to speak on the record, so it is unclear whether he also objects to the organizers' offer of varying admission privileges. He would only point to the section of his letter that says, "US Government personnel will not meet with firms or individuals based on whether they have made contributions [to SHO]."

So if no one is selling access, what's the motivation for giving? "You're really saying that my company supports the WTO and what they're doing to set trade rules," says Lawrence Clarkson, a former senior vice president at Boeing, who is the chair of SHO's fund-raising committee. Sponsors will also have greater visibility at the SHO business conference and will get a link to their home pages on the WTO Seattle Web site.

Whatever the companies expect to get, they are certainly expected to give, and Seattle organizers can be forgiven if they're a little desperate. Local officials were only notified in late January that Seattle had been selected to host this year's WTO ministerial. (The previous two sessions were in Singapore and Geneva.) SHO has to quickly raise about $10 million, in cash and in-kind contributions, to pay for an event that Mullen says is "orders of magnitude larger" than the APEC meeting held in Seattle in 1993. And neither the esteemed trade ministers, nor the US government, is putting up significant money for the event.

Turning to rich corporations has therefore become the custom for such affairs. For example, the 50th anniversary celebration of NATO, which takes place in Washington, DC, this weekend, is being largely paid for by about a dozen of the biggest US companies. "Private-sector financing of an international meeting for sovereign nations is standard business practice these days," according to a recent story about the NATO summit in The Washington Post.

Dan Seligman of the Sierra Club, for one, worries about our government's dependence on the Fortune 500 to pay for events where "major public policy issues, affecting health and the environment, among other things" will be decided. "If the whole enterprise is being funded by corporations, you've got to raise fundamental questions about how neutral, how legitimate it is."

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