On Jan.12, tickets to the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States began arriving at the offices of New Mexico’s congressmen.
Approximately 240,000 tickets were issued to members of Congress. Democratic US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall’s offices each received about 400 tickets and both distributed the vast majority through a lottery. Fellow Democrat US Rep. Ben Ray Luján received less than 200 tickets and distributed virtually all of them on a first-come, first-served basis.
Although Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., who chairs the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, crafted a bill to criminalize inaugural ticket sales, there is no way to verify that recipients did not pay to attend, either by donating to congressmen or buying tickets.
Web sites like Inauguraltickets.com are advertising tickets at exorbitant rates: Standing area on the far side of the Capitol Mall’s Reflecting Pool sell for $725, while the front- and center-west area go for $1,750.
Big contributors and fundraisers to the committee were guaranteed admission—as the Washington Post reported, $50,000 donors and $300,000 bundlers (people who arrange for multiple contributions) will receive four tickets to several events, including the swearing-in ceremony. Among those meeting the criteria: Actor Jamie Foxx, puppeteer Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa Henson and Lehman Brothers executive Mark Gilbert.
No New Mexicans were listed as bundlers on the JCCIC’s Web site, and only 10 were listed as contributors, none donating more than $1,000. These include former New Mexico Democratic Party Chairman Earl Potter and Mohamed Dada, who runs the jewelry store A Touch of Santa Fe in Gallup.
Potter and his wife will receive tickets through Bingaman’s office. He says he received tickets not because of his JCCIC donation, but because he was law school classmates with Bingaman and has worked on all his campaigns since 1982.
But Potter isn’t planning to use his tickets—he spent two hours in line during Bill Clinton’s second inauguration and doesn’t want to deal with the security checkpoints. Instead, the Potters will watch the event on monitors at the other end of the Mall and “probably give the tickets to someone else,” Potter says. “You don’t sell inauguration tickets.”
As for other recipients, members of Congress are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act, which, according to Bingaman’s spokeswoman Jude McCartin, allows the office to withhold the names of ticket recipients.
McCartin does say, to her knowledge, none of the recipients were lobbyists, although “we didn’t discriminate against somebody in New Mexico if they happened to be a lobbyist.”
Luján’s communications director, Mark Nicastre, says Luján’s office was able to accommodate all requests that came in within the first month and a half of the election; even staffers were allocated tickets in the order they appeared on the spreadsheet.
“Even if you asked for tickets in exchange for never bothering me again, I wouldn’t be able to get you tickets,” Nicastre says. “We have a waiting list.”
However, Luján’s office is only releasing the names of individuals who have already agreed to speak to the press.
That lack of disclosure has some watchdogs on alert.
“We believe everything should be public information that has to do with the public part of a lawmaker’s job, and certainly this would fall into that category,” Nancy Watzman, spokeswoman for the open-government organization the Sunlight Foundation, says.
Watzman points out that Obama’s committees have been more open with inaugural information than previous administrations. The JCCIC is not accepting money from political committees, unions or federal lobbyists, nor contributions greater than $50,000.
“According to the law, you don’t have to disclose until after the fact, so they’ve been much more up-front than previous folk,” Watzman says “At the same time, there are all these private events going on around town that are corporate-sponsored and don’t require [disclosure].”
Watzman coordinates Sunlight’s database of special interest-sponsored events for politicians. The only New Mexico event listed on the site is an inaugural ball hosted by the New Mexico State Society, for which Bingaman serves as honorary chairman. All sponsorship slots—which cost between $1,000 and $5,000—have been filled and include the lobbyist firms PMA Group, Alcalde & Fay and Fredericks Peebles & Morgan LLP.