HARRISBURG - This July, the most generous donors to Gov. Corbett's campaign fund were offered a special opportunity: Travel to a luxury resort a few hours from Harrisburg, and network with the governor, his top executive staffers, and members of his cabinet.
During the overnight trip to the Omni Bedford Springs Resort, they could play the acclaimed golf course, visit the spa, shop the boutiques, and hike the trails, between mingling at work sessions where they could hear cabinet officials speak about the administration's priorities and later exchange ideas about policy.
The exclusive two-day affair was underwritten partly by Corbett's campaign fund, and administration officials said last week that no taxpayer dollars were used.
But the event has again raised the prospect of special interests with deep pockets gaining intimate access to the state's top decision-makers. Last week, the governor found himself fending off questions about one donor, midstate businessman John D. Moran, after Corbett amended his 2011 financial disclosure to report that Moran paid for a free Rhode Island vacation for the governor and his wife. Corbett defended the trip as legal, noting he had disclosed it.
The issue of access is a sensitive one for Corbett, who pledged during his 2010 campaign ("We have to change Harrisburg") and in his inaugural address that his administration would shed the Capitol's secretive, clubby culture and usher in an era of transparency.
"This is an example of the uncomfortable intersection of the governing functions and political ones," said Barry Kauffman, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania. "Relationships that are fostered during those kinds of events become invaluable in gaining access and creating the kind of working relationships that help special interests benefit from public policy outcomes."
The Bedford Springs retreat took place soon after Corbett and the legislature wrapped up grueling weeks of budget negotiations, and was billed as a chance to discuss key issues affecting the state.
Receiving invitations were a select group of campaign donors in the governor's "Leadership Circle," said Brian Nutt, a political adviser to Corbett who ran his attorney general and gubernatorial campaigns. That circle has several tiers, such as those who gave more than $25,000, $50,000, or $100,000, or have committed themselves to raising specific amounts. Corbett faces reelection in 2014.
Only top givers and fund-raisers were invited. Guests included entrepreneurs, a union leader, lobbyists, and political rainmakers, such as Mark Holman, who was Gov. Tom Ridge's chief aide and is now a lobbyist with the Ridge Policy Group; Allegheny County GOP head Jim Roddey; and Republican National Committee members Robert Asher and Christine Toretti.
Guests did not pay to attend, as they might at a traditional fund-raiser, but were responsible for their own accommodations and any outside activities, such as golfing.
For cabinet officials and the governor's executive staff, the retreat was not mandatory, Corbett campaign officials said. But, as one Corbett insider who requested anonymity put it: "You knew it wouldn't be smart to say no."
Three people who attended said there was no formal program. They described informational sessions where cabinet members spoke and took questions, as well as a dinner at which Corbett spoke, and a luncheon the next day. During down time, some attendees hit the golf course; others took advantage of the spa.
"I would characterize it as a symposium, or conference, where people exchanged information," Nutt said. "The individuals who came to this for the most part are leaders in their businesses, or industries or areas of law practice."
As for the setting - Bedford County is dotted with orchards, wineries, and covered bridges - Nutt said: "We wanted to do something that is a little bit nicer and a little more unique than, say, the traditional cocktail reception. But the purpose was for people to come and hear what is going on with the governor, what the agenda is, and what issues he and the administration might be tackling."
Corbett is not the first officeholder to host an intimate gathering with top donors. In other states, Republicans and Democrats alike have thrown fund-raisers with governors as the star attraction, often doling out access based on the amount paid for a ticket. Campaigns devise catchy names - Ridge had a Governor's Club where, depending on the sum given, donors could dine or golf with him. President Bill Clinton became notorious for rewarding top donors with White House stays in the Lincoln bedroom.
The Bedford Springs retreat was different from a traditional fund-raiser or golf outing, for which people buy tickets. And it offered access not only to the governor, but to senior staff and cabinet members.
"Access matters," said Eric Epstein, cofounder of the self-styled government reform group Rock the Capital. "You don't need to hire a bloodhound to sniff out the trail of political insider trading."
Ed Coryell, who heads the Philadelphia carpenters union and who was a guest at Bedford Springs, dismissed the criticism.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with it," said Coryell, who said he talked to administration officials during the retreat about transportation funding, a hotly debated issue in the Capitol. "He [Corbett] didn't offer anything, and we didn't ask for anything."
Coryell added: "I've served for many years and worked with a list of governors, and it's always the same. If you are a supporter, you will have access. That's America."
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