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Additional cost of Romney gala questioned

Political advisers hold funds raised

After a gala event last summer designed to promote the governor's national ambitions, Mitt Romney's political consultants billed the Massachusetts corporations that sponsored the event an extra $105,000, saying the money was needed to cover ''additional catering."

But a Globe examination has raised questions about whether those costs were incurred and about the role played by the company of the governor's top political consultant, Michael Murphy, one of the organizers of the party.

The party was held during the Republican National Convention in New York, aboard the USS Intrepid, a World War II aircraft carrier museum on the Hudson River. Four Massachusetts corporations, all with interests on Beacon Hill, underwrote the event.

Murphy's firm, DC Navigators, and a firm in which his close ally, GOP operative John Weaver, is managing director, told the corporations the budget for the party was initially $258,000. Murphy's company and Weaver's firms said after the event, however, that 2,500 guests attended, far more than the 1,500 expected, increasing costs to $395,000.

The bulk of that increase, $105,000, was for additional catering, according to the invoice Murphy and Weaver's firms sent to the corporations and provided to the Globe. But employees of the catering company and the museum contradict that contention, saying they provided catering for 1,500 guests.

''That was the final number I was given," said Amanda Bartfeld, a saleswoman for Restaurant Associates, the company that exclusively handles the catering for the Intrepid museum. She said she ''never heard about" a higher figure.

The museum press secretary, Denise Downing, also said the catering company charged the organizers of the Romney party based on 1,500 guests.

Corporate donations to political candidates are generally prohibited by state and federal campaign finance laws. That prohibition, however, does not apply to political conventions, where large amounts of corporate money flow freely, to entertain delegates and underwrite events honoring political figures. Such donations are unregulated and not required to be publicly disclosed.

What stands out about Romney's event is that a significant amount of the money raised for it ended up in the hands of his political consulting firm, which also describes itself as a top-shelf lobbying firm.

In interviews over the past week, Weaver and Murphy described the party as a huge success, attracting an overflow crowd that packed the ship. Weaver said that generated unanticipated expenses.

''It was a logistical nightmare," Weaver recalled, describing what he said were the ''spiraling costs" created by the extra guests. ''This event got out of hand."

When pressed to provide bills or other documentation that costs increased, Weaver declined, saying the information was private.

Asked to explain the additional charges, given the assertions by the catering company saleswoman and the museum that there were 1,500 guests, Weaver did not respond directly. He said the additional expenses billed to the corporations were based on a ''per person charge, not a consumption charge."

''It matters not that a person attended and devoured 10 pounds of shrimp and drank a bottle of whiskey or showed up and . . . consumed no food or had no beverage," Weaver said. ''It is a per person charge."

Pressed about whether the money collected from the corporate sponsors would be sent to the catering company, Weaver refused to respond directly, reiterating that the bills are private.

Gina Zimmer, vice president of marketing for Restaurant Associates, said that for each event the company caters, it provides a small amount of extra food and beverage, enough for a modest increase above the estimated guest count. An influx of 50 percent to 70 percent is generally unheard of and would create havoc, she said. ''It wouldn't happen like that."

Zimmer said the company always conducts its own headcount, but she said she would not release that information without the client's permission.

Murphy and Weaver have been longtime political associates. The two served as chief strategists for the 2000 presidential campaign of US Senator John McCain. Murphy recommended that the Massachusetts Republican Party hire Weaver's firm, New York-based Hession & Associates, to plan the party for Romney.

Murphy said Weaver's firm handled the party's financial details. But he said he recalled that a large crowd at the party and that initial concerns by the organizers about low turnout turned into a ''lot of high-fiving" at the end of the evening because so many people came. He said he does not question the invoice that Weaver gave him, which his company, DC Navigators, then sent to the corporations seeking the extra money. Murphy said he does not expect his company to make any money from the event.

The sponsors of the event included Fidelity Investments, Massachusetts Mutual Financial Group, and Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., which each donated $100,000 in August, and Raytheon Co., which gave $15,000 that same month.

Then, in December, Murphy's firm sent a letter to the three larger donors outlining the final invoice drawn up by Hession & Associates, which said the costs had grown to a total of $395,000.

Murphy's firm sought checks of $26,717 from Fidelity, Mass. Mutual, and Liberty Mutual. Fidelity and Liberty Mutual sent checks, made out to DC Navigators; Mass. Mutual did not. The funds, totaling $53,000, arrived the first week of February at DC Navigators' office in Washington and have been held there since, according to Weaver and Trent Wisecup, a partner at DC Navigators.

Neither Fidelity nor Liberty Mutual raised concerns about the invoice. A Fidelity spokesman said the investment firm had no reason to question the accounting.

''We received an invoice listing the various expenses, and the majority of it was for additional catering for the main reception," said Vin Loporchio, a Fidelity spokesman. ''We always anticipated that there could be additional costs for the event."

There is no evidence that Romney was involved in or aware of the details surrounding financing of the event.

Murphy, a founding principal of DC Navigators, signed on as Romney's chief political adviser in 2002 and guided him through a gubernatorial election. From January 2003, when Romney took office, through December 2004, Murphy's firm was paid by the Massachusetts Republican Party to advise the governor and party officials.

According to the state party's executive director, Tim O'Brien, Murphy confers weekly with party chairman Darrell Crate. Murphy continues also to be the principal political adviser for the governor as Romney explores presidential politics and tries to shore up his support in Massachusetts.

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