Dollar Bill's dollar bills

After leaving the Senate, Bill Bradley built up a network of supporters in the private sector who are now helping to finance his surprise challenge to Al Gore.

By Jake Tapper

Published November 3, 1999 9:00AM (EST)

Since leaving the Senate in January 1997 to spend more time with the common folk and advocate on behalf of campaign-finance reform, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley has earned more than $2.6 million by mingling with fat cats.

According to tax returns released in the past few days, much of Bradley's earnings came from big-business sources with an interest in being on the potential president's good side -- including $300,000 from J.P. Morgan alone, which brought Bradley on as a consultant. The bulk of Bradley's earnings -- $1.6 million -- came from the Washington Speakers Bureau for speeches Bradley delivered at around $30,000 a pop. Many of these speeches were made to financial and pharmaceutical firms deeply involved in the political process.

"The Washington Speakers Bureau made the arrangements for the speeches with the groups that requested Bradley to speak before them," says Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser, who points out that Bradley didn't play any role in selecting the organizations to which he spoke.

Hauser says that speaking was only one of the many activities in Bradley's post-Senate, pre-presidential-candidate life outside the political arena. Bradley -- nicknamed "Dollar Bill" by his Knicks teammates because of his sizable NBA contract as well as his frugality -- taught at Stanford, the University of Maryland and Notre Dame. He authored a bestselling coffee-table book, "Values of the Game," and was active in organizations such as the National Civic League. Many of the groups to whom he spoke through the Washington Speakers Bureau were colleges and universities.

"He's spent most of his time between leaving the Senate and running for president focusing on public issues," Hauser says, "like campaign-finance reform, making appeals for racial unity and rebuilding community life. That was the focus of his public activities -- whether he was teaching, writing or affiliated with groups working on those projects.

"But he also made a living."

Indeed he did. Since 1996, many of the other presidential hopefuls -- like Vice President Al Gore, Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John McCain -- have been firmly entrenched in the regulated political system, whereby industries curry favor through the normal channels, including PACs and individual donations. Bradley, however, has been operating free of the nit-picky rules and intrusive media scrutiny that characterize that system. Instead, in an entirely unregulated and unlimited way, Bradley has been flown anywhere he chooses, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Palm Beach, Fla., by corporations that routinely attempt to influence public policy.

The fund-raising network secured in part by these speaking engagements has enabled Bradley to launch one of the strongest insurgent presidential campaigns in recent history. Bradley's superlative ability to raise cash for his presidential bid has made him competitive against a vice president whose presumed strength chased almost all of his prospective Democratic rivals -- like Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey and Minority Leader Richard Gephardt of Missouri -- out of the race long before it even began.

In raising campaign cash in the third quarter of this year, Bradley not only surpassed expectations but bested Gore himself, according to Federal Election Committee filings. Currently, the Bradley campaign has about as much cash on hand as the vice president's campaign -- roughly $10 million.

And many of the businesses and individuals who hired Bradley for speaking or other services are currently supporting his presidential bid.

"He would speak on those issues before audiences that probably had entirely other points of view," Hauser says. "Just as he does today. He says the same thing to a Boys and Girls Club in New Hampshire that he does at a Wall Street event. He'll go to a high-dollar fund-raiser and talk about campaign-finance reform and child poverty. He does not narrow-cast his message."

But while Bradley's own motives may have been unassailably pure, the same cannot necessarily be assumed of those writing the checks.

The company that seems most enraptured by Bradley's speaking, for instance, is the relatively obscure Key Corp Bank; Bradley spoke with members of the Key Corp Bank more than a dozen times in 1998.

In the chasm between business and labor, Key Corp Bank established itself as solidly on the business side in 1997 when the bank kicked in $75,000 to help fund a Republican-led initiative to overhaul workers' compensation standards in Ohio. Called "Issue Two," it was opposed by trial lawyers and labor unions, which argued that its changes would slash benefits. In the end, the labor side won, supported by 57 percent of the voters despite being outspent 3-to-1.

Through his speaking engagements, Bradley made more than $320,000 from Key Corp Bank in 1998 alone.

"Some executive at the Key Corp Bank thought the world of him," Hauser explains, "so he put together all sorts of events, and told the satellite offices and bureaus to bring Bradley in to speak to them."

A spokesman for Key Corp Bank did not return a call for comment.

In addition to speaking to Key Corp Bank, Bradley spent 1998 chatting up executives of various industries that regularly donate large amounts of cash to federal candidates, including:

  • pharmaceutical companies like Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, which donated $42,750 to federal candidates in 1997-98, and $50,000 in soft money during that same time. Bradley spoke to Rhone-Poulenc Rorer executives in San Diego, Calif.;

  • masters of high finance like Arthur Andersen/Andersen Consulting, which gave $442,086 in donations to federal candidates in 1997-98, and $116,250 in soft money. Bradley spoke with Andersen Consulting execs in Aventura, Fla.;

  • influential big businesses like the American Trucking Association, which coughed up $419,196 for federal candidates in 1997-98, and $249,847 in soft money. Bradley spoke to ATA execs in Key Largo, Fla.

Many of the organizations ponying up the $25,000-$30,000 to hear Bradley wax poetic have a direct interest in legislation. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the agenda of the American Trucking Association "includes promoting as much spending as possible on highway projects and opposing efforts to tighten clean air standards."

Common Cause legislative director Meredith McGehee says that speaker's and consulting fees are just part of the whole Washington "big money game."

"If you sit back and say, 'Here I am, as a big-business person, someone who wants to play the big-money game in Washington, what are all of the things at my disposal to make sure my business' interests get heard in Washington?'" says McGehee, "you have the ability to give political contributions, the ability to give soft money, to hire lobbyists, to take people in your organization skiing with one of the candidates and you have the ability to invite people to give speeches. They're all part of the tools for people there who want to play that game."

McGehee allows that Bradley makes sense as a choice of speaker. "It's hard to argue that Bradley isn't a compelling figure -- as an athlete and a former senator and a potential presidential candidate."

But, McGehee says, "when they're an individual like Bradley or Elizabeth Dole, [the businesses hiring them] are banking on the fact that they're going to continue to be players in the political system. Does it raise questions as to why people are giving the money? Absolutely. But they are private citizens. And it's hard for me to conceive of a way to legislate that they as private citizens can't go out and give speeches, and they can't be paid for those speeches what the market will bear."

The same goes for Bradley's consulting for J.P. Morgan, McGehee says. Bradley started work at Morgan just days after his January 1997 departure from the Senate. The financial giant is the No. 2 political donor among all commercial banks, having donated $596,820 to candidates in the last election cycle. Since 1979, J.P. Morgan's political action committee, as well as its employees, have given Bradley $71,150.

With Bradley as a member of the private sector -- and a "consultant" -- there was, of course, no legal limit on how much J.P. Morgan could give him. Bradley was paid $300,000 by J.P. Morgan for consulting since he retired from the Senate -- $100,000 as vice chair of its international council and $200,000 for work as a senior advisor at Morgan Guaranty Trust. Hauser characterizes Bradley's role with J.P. Morgan as providing "advice and ideas on international economic issues, which were a central part if his career in the Senate."

Hauser says that Bradley's support among New York City financial circles makes perfect sense, since they've known him in so many celebrity incarnations: as a Princeton All-American, a twice-world-champion New York Knick and an 18-year New Jersey senator.

"Like a lot of people in New York, [J.P. Morgan executives] have known him in different ways for 35 years," Hauser says. "He's been in that media market for 35 years. Whether we're talking about people on Wall Street or cab drivers, he's pretty well-known and pretty-well liked in New York City."

The Center for Responsive Politics currently lists J.P. Morgan as one of the top contributors to Bradley's presidential bid, with donations of more than $51,000 to date. But no quid pro quo exists, Hauser says. "No one ever saw any connections between Bill's public record and his votes and the contributions he received. People don't ask for things from him, and if they do they don't get them."

As a member of the Senate, and in particular the powerful Senate Finance Committee, Bradley had occasion to vote on legislation with tremendous impact on J.P. Morgan and other financial institutions. In 1987, Bradley supported the Morgan Guaranty Mexican bail-out. After the bail-out was announced, the price of J.P. Morgan & Co. stock rose from $2.12 a share to $23.50.

A decade later, after Bradley retired from the Senate, Morgan Guaranty paid Bradley $200,000 to serve as a senior advisor.

"Bradley's integrity on issues is unimpeachable," says Hauser. "There is no conception of his making a decision based on anything other than what he thinks is the right decision. He's worked on trade and debt issues quietly, persistently, and some might say boringly for years and years. He has deep knowledge and interest on third world debt and debt restructuring and has deep knowledge on how these issues are crucial to keep the world economy going."

Members of another large institutional political donor, Chase Manhattan Bank, which donated $405,712 to candidates and parties in the last cycle, heard Bradley speak at a gathering in Carefree, Ariz. Additionally, the Bradley for President campaign lists Chase Manhattan chief executive Thomas G. Labrecque as a member of its advisory board.

Bradley spoke to a number of organizations with an interest in health-care legislation, including the American Association of Health Plans in Boston, HealthPartners in Minneapolis, Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society in Orlando, Fla. and the Massachusetts Medical Society in Boston.

In 1998, Bradley traveled to Pebble Beach, Calif., to speak to employees of Dain Rauscher Wessels, a company that provides investment banking and brokerage for health-care firms. Dain Rauscher CEO Irving Weisner and his wife Marge are members of the Bradley for President advisory board.

Also in 1998, Bradley spoke to Andersen Consulting executives in Aventura, Fla. Andersen Worldwide is one of Bradley's top contributors, with $27,750 going from the company to his campaign via individual donations.

Whether Bradley formed the bulk of these big-business relationships while a Knick, a member of the Senate Finance Committee or on the lecture circuit is unclear. But the relationships seem cemented now. Bradley's fan base for his public speaking and consulting clearly overlaps significantly with that for his presidential run.

"Bill has been clear for years that fundamental campaign-finance reform is not only a priority for him and the country, but is the key to getting a lot of other parts of the domestic agenda accomplished," says Hauser. "Until the impact of money and politics is reduced, our ability to move an agenda forward is going to be thwarted by special interests. He's talked about that for years."

For up to $30,000 a pop.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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