The money behind President Trump’s Fourth of July extravaganza

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via the National Parks Service

Featuring M1A1 Abrams tanks, a “Baby Trump” blimp and the biggest fireworks show D.C. has ever seen, President Donald Trump’s Fourth of July celebration is shaping up to be one for the history books.

With Trump inserting himself into this year’s Independence Day festivities, the historically apolitical event is under intense scrutiny. In addition to providing VIP tickets for political donors, the event has attracted a number of lobbying efforts, both traditional and unorthodox. Fireworks makers have gone the unorthodox route by making unprecedented donations, while others helping to put on the celebration have ramped up their lobbying efforts with millions of federal government grant dollars up for grabs.

The China trade war connection

Following a direct plea to Trump from the pyrotechnics industry to exempt fireworks from import tariffs on Chinese goods, pyrotechnics giants Phantom Fireworks and Fireworks by Grucci in late June donated an estimated $750,000 worth of fireworks, staff and event displays to provide this year’s Fourth of July with one of the most extravagant fireworks shows in U.S. history. 

The president responded by tweeting his thanks to the two companies, just a few days after declaring a trade truce with China. 

As fireworks are still overwhelmingly assembled by hand, Chinese companies manufacture three-quarters of professional display fireworks — and 99 percent of backyard consumer fireworks — sold in the U.S. The Trump administration had proposed slapping new tariffs on another $300 billion worth of Chinese imports, a potentially devastating measure for the fireworks industry that was strongly opposed by the American Pyrotechnics Association. 

Phantom Fireworks President Bruce Zoldan, who personally met with Trump in late May to lobby against Chinese tariffs, told the Washington Examiner the show would be worth more than $1 million if the two firms were charging market rates. Zoldan has said the discussion over the donation was in the works for months before the lobbying over tariffs.

Zoldan has contributed to Democrats and Republicans but sends most of his money to Democrats, including the maximum $5,400 to Hillary Clinton in 2016 and several maximum contributions to Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who represents his Youngstown district in Congress. Zoldan, who also contributed to Obama’s inaugural fund in 2008, has said the fireworks donation is not political in nature. 

The other major donor, Fireworks by Grucci, has always put on a show for U.S. presidents. The family-owned Long Island company provided fireworks for every presidential inauguration from Ronald Reagan to Trump with the exception of Barack Obama, who didn’t have fireworks at his inaugurations. 

Fireworks by Grucci takes in serious cash from the U.S. government, receiving up to $131 million in government contracts since 2008 to put on a number of shows for service members and veterans, according to USASpending.gov. The company recently told Newsday it is deeply tied to Independence Day. 

New Jersey-based Garden State Fireworks, which will put on its usual fireworks show as it has for previous D.C. Fourth of July events, has brought in nearly $2.3 million in government contracts since 2011. 

A Fourth of July tradition

An event the size and scale of Capitol Fourth, located on the National Mall, naturally requires organizers to gather significant funding and to jump through a slough of regulatory hoops with federal decision makers in both the administration and Congress. In an all-too-Washington fashion, the organization primarily responsible for Capitol Fourth has a lobbying budget to help grease the gears of the federal city.

Capital Concerts is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that has been organizing national concerts in Washington, D.C., for the last 39 years, most notably the yearly Memorial Day Concert and Capitol Fourth. The organization — which oversees only the Capitol Fourth concert, and not the parade or other festivities this week — is a public-private partnership between the federal government and private sector contributors.

The private sector donors include significant in-kind services, including grants and licensing through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting Service, which televises the event. A number of other organizations are corporate sponsors including Boeing and American Airlines. These contributions grew between 2012 and 2014 and constituted 38 percent of Capital Concerts’ budget in the latter year.

Federal funding, however, remained nominally steady during the same period, constituting most of the organization’s remaining revenue, 60 percent in 2014. This money is appropriated by Congress through the Department of the Army and the National Park Service with the understanding they’ll be used for concerts on the National Mall. The federal government allocated $5.5 million total to those entities each year 2012-2014. Last year, Capital Concerts brought in just over $10 million in revenue and spent a similar amount, according to IRS data.

These figures come from a Government Accountability Office audit spurred by the House Committee on Administration to look into Capital Concerts’ budgeting. The investigation was triggered after Capital Concerts reported spending between 1.1 percent and 3.7 percent less than they were allocated by Congress between 2012 and 2014. The GAO found no wrongdoing or malpractice other than some checks that should have been signed by two different managers.

One of Capital Concerts’ regular lobbyists, Debbie Weatherly, describes the issues she lobbies on as: “Assists with the development of and relationships with Congress for the National Memorial Day and Fourth of July concerts on the US Capitol grounds for the last 38 years,” according to lobbying disclosures.

“The funding is really the smallest portion of what they help us with,” a spokesperson for Capital Concerts told no deposit bonus forex. “It’s really advice and communications among these different entities because of our location on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.”

Capital Concerts has spent an increasing amount of money lobbying Congress and the NPS in recent years. In 2018, the organization spent $142,000 on lobbying efforts. That number has been growing since 2007 when the Capital Concerts only allocated $20,000 towards lobbying efforts. 

I.M.P. Productions, the company providing technical services for several D.C. venues including the Wharf, also chips in a regular chunk of change toward lobbying for performances. The company spent $80,000 on lobbying each year from 2016 to 2018.

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