TAMPA, Fla. — The waterfront deck of Jackson's Bistro has one of the premier views of the Tampa Convention Center and the Tampa Bay Times Forum, the spots where mobs of media and GOP delegates are gathering for the Republican National Convention.
One Washington lobbying firm has turned the restaurant into one of the most exclusive and covert hangouts for Republicans, and they're trying to keep the firm's role a secret. So far, they have succeeded.
Try walking into the restaurant, and a guard from a private security firm from Orlando will turn you away. This, the guard says, is a private, invitation-only event. On Tuesday morning, guests mingled with drinks and shrimp cocktail, leaning on the balcony that overlooks a narrow strip of deep blue Tampa Bay waters to the convention hall and the downtown skyline.
What the restaurant won't say is which lobbying firm has rented out the entire 22,000-square foot bistro and sushi bar for the week. Whichever firm it was required a non-disclosure agreement, said Kelley Flynn, Jackson's Bistro marketing director. "It's a private client," she said. "We were working on this for a little over a year."
The agreement, first reported by the Tampa Tribune, illustrates the two sides of the convention partying here in Tampa. There are lobbying firms whose clients want to make a splash with concert by name bands or special guests—and then there are clients who want to keep a lid on which politicians they are wooing.
The restaurant is just a short walk from the convention hall, but even getting there takes some insider clout or real effort. The restaurant is perched on the northwest side of Harbour Island, which is only accessible via two bridges. One requires convention credentials to walk across, and the other is locked down by security teams searching every car.
The restaurant now will "serve a single customer: One unnamed lobbyist from Washington who will host breakfast, lunches and dinners throughout the week for hundreds of VIPs," the newspaper reported earlier this month after speaking with the owner.
The lobbying firm's secrecy has made it a target for activists looking to watchdog the convention. Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, said this type of arrangement raises questions about whether lobbying rules are being broken.
"This is just a blatant example of the very well-financed lobbyists being able to do unlimited influence peddling at the conventions…and doing it all behind closed doors," Holman said. Making the restaurant an invitation-only destination makes it "on-going, continuing, party central going on through the convention and hosted by one lobbyist for one lobbying firm."
On Tuesday morning, Jackson's Bistro was the spot where AT&T hosted an event for the Arizona delegation, which included the state's Republican Governor, Jan Brewer, known for her outspoken criticism of President Barack Obama and his immigration policies. Attendees grabbed a gift bag on the way out.
Outside the door was a sign with AT&T's logo and a sign that warned: "If you are a public official or employee, please consider the applicable federal, state or local gift restrictions that apply. Thank you for your compliance."
AT&T has long been a power in Washington, and has its own internal D.C. lobbying crew. But it used outside firms to supplement that effort in 2011, when it was seeking approval on a $39 million merger with T-Mobile USA. The Department of Justice sued and stopped the deal.
A list of D.C. firms that have lobbied for AT&T in the past includes two with connections to Mitt Romney. One is Patton Boggs, where partners have played key roles in his campaign, especially campaign counsel Benjamin Ginsberg. The list also includes Wiley Rein, with founding partner Richard Wiley serving as a co-chair of Romney's legal advisory team.
In an interview last week, Wiley said he didn't know who had rented the restaurant. A Patton Boggs spokeswoman didn't immediately return a call for comment.
Despite the attempts at privacy, word about the events held there continues to leak out. The Detroit News reported that the Michigan delegation kicked off the convention there Saturday night and received "gift bags contained a stuffed animal elephant — the GOP symbol — with an AT&T logo."
National Law Journal photo by Todd Ruger.