Donkey Droppings

Another day, another illegal campaign contribution

Published December 4, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

WASHINGTON -- For weeks, President Clinton has suffered (another) bleeder of a scandal, with daily revelations about the fundraising activities of the Democratic National Committee and Clinton's ties to major Asian moneymen such as Indonesian billionaire Mochtar Riady. Republicans are salivating at the prospects of a fresh round of congressional investigations, and though Attorney General Janet Reno has declined to appoint an independent counsel, FBI agents and Justice Department gumshoes are poring over the Democratic party's money records.

If the most recent list of party contributors -- issued in the last week of the campaign only after intense pressure -- is any measure, the Feds, and the rest of us, have a lot to think about.

Most immediately noticeable is that about half of the more than 1,000 individual contributors are not properly identified. Under the law, big-money donors are supposed to list their names, addresses, and, more importantly, their occupation and employer. Disclosing such affiliations is supposed to allow the public to see what interests are backing the candidates and make it harder for businesses, trade associations and unions to use individuals as a curtain to hide behind.

So, who are Bobby and Charlotte Lowder from Montgomery, Alabama? They each gave $50,000 to the DNC. No information other than their address is provided. When I called the phone number listed for them, no one picked up, and there was no answering machine. Or how about Subandi Tanuwijaja, supposedly of Diamond Bar, Calif.? His professional affiliation -- if he has one -- was a blank on the form. He donated $20,000. You can't ask him why. He's not listed in the phone book.

Clearly the party did not over-exert itself in seeking the required information. There is no employment information for Nicole Kidman ($5,000), Don Henley ($30,000) or George Soros ($100,000). Don't the people at the DNC read the papers or watch Entertainment Tonight?

Incompetence or cover-up -- which is it? Is the DNC too lazy to collect the information or does it prefer not to have all this data made public? Take a name I chose at random on the Democrats' list: Vinod Gupta, who contributed $50,000 to the party on Oct. 11. His address, according to the DNC, is a post office box in Omaha. There was no information regarding his occupation

I did a Nexus search which turned up a small pile of news clips. Gupta is the chairman of American Business Information, a major supplier of business databases. The search also produced an interesting story in USA Today on how political contributors evade restrictions by donating money through their children. Turns out Gupta dipped into his sons' trust funds for contributions to Democratic candidates. His oldest son, aged 17, told the paper, "Dad makes these donations in my name." Well, that's illegal. Yet the day after the story appeared, the DNC accepted $50,000 from Gupta. Is this headline-screaming news? "DNC Welcomes Contributor Who Exploited Children To Break Law." Probably not. This is just another campaign scam that has become all too common.

But the real story is not so much with individual cases. Certainly, funny money from Buddhist monks in California is a cause for uproar. And by all means, the media should be chasing the shy John Huang and trying to determine if (a) he or others bagged illegal contributions and (b) he or others promised favors in return for them. But keep in mind that Huang raised only $2.5 million -- just one percent of the DNC's total take of $250 million.

Overlooked in the hue and cry over foreign contributions were the scores of big contributions from lawyers and lobbyists for all-American interests. According to the DNC report, Christopher Hansen, the deputy director of congressional affairs for Boeing, cut a check for $20,000. You'd assume that a fellow in that position expects a return on his investment. The report, of course, won't tell us what that is. A firm called Digital Broadband Applications in West Conshohocken, PA., coughed up $20,000. A waste hauling company in Rahway, N.J. sent in $50,000. What did they want? What did Native American tribes who coughed up more than $100,000 in a two-week period expect to get?

Spend an hour or so with a campaign finance report -- from either party or almost any candidate -- and you cannot escape the conclusion: the system's rotten. Money is roaring through it so fast that the parties can't keep track of all the bucks they rake in. Some of the current abuses could easily be remedied. Telling political parties, for example, that they can bank a contribution only if they collect the appropriate information from the donor would concentrate the minds of campaign accountants wonderfully. But despite the current cries for radical campaign finance reform, one remains skeptical of its passage anytime soon.

It's been said that the real scandal in Washington is what's legal. A corollary ought to be, that which becomes routine is not a scandal. As the media crucifies John Huang for his fundraising finagling, remember that he is merely one water carrier in a polluted process. In the land of the corrupt, only the most noticeable are chased by a camera crew. And the true significance of documents like the DNC report does not qualify as news.

Quote of the day

Affirming action

"It is clear to me that we can no longer sell to the American people policies based on racial prejudice -- they won't buy it. We can either shove it down their throats through the judiciary ... or we can try to appeal to that majority and use it as the basis for a new consensus about what we can do to help people who are truly disadvantaged."

-- Ward Connerly, organizer of California's Prop. 209, on taking his anti-affirmative action crusade national. (From "Affirmative Action Foe Connerly Goes National," in Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle)

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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