Cash cowed

The Republican Party's zeal for raising money has even some of its own members worried.

Published May 11, 2001 8:00AM (EDT)

GOP fundraising has taken on an especially aggressive tone in the last few weeks, so much so that some GOP elected officials have distanced themselves from some of the money-shaking techniques used by the Republican National Committee and its various House and Senate fundraising arms.

Just Wednesday, amid charges that the Republican Party was engaging in questionable fundraising practices involving the purchase of access to Cabinet secretaries as well as activities with foreign dignitaries on sovereign foreign soil, one Republican senator, Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois, resigned as chairman of a high-donor group.

Regardless of the controversies, however, the GOP money machine chugs along in a way that is offending good government groups on both the left and the right.

This year, in fact, potential GOP donors are being sold access to not only U.S. officials, but foreign officials as well. In the party's pitch for a National Republican Senatorial Committee fundraiser in late May where the party hopes to raise $25 million, potential donors are invited "to dine with diplomats and embassy officials and discuss international affairs at one of Washington's famous embassies." Potential donors are told of past events, including "special Life Member-only meetings with Lady Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev," just a sample of one of the "grand events, private meetings, and photo opportunities" available to paying customers.

"Selling access to foreign government officials on the sovereign soil of a foreign embassy is the kind of thing you could kind of picture happening in 1996," said Common Cause spokesman Jeff Cronin, referring to outrage over the allegations of foreign money in the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Cronin said this raised "all sorts of troubling questions."

Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, was even harsher in his criticism.

"The embassy fundraising is reaching a new low," he said. "I've never seen a political party sell access to an embassy and embassy officials to high donors. They're buying access to political people from other countries. This is stooping to new depths."

Dan Allen, an NRSC spokesman, insisted that there was nothing untoward going on. The embassy was being rented, he said, and foreign dignitaries were only going to be there "as a courtesy to the ambassador of the embassy we're renting."

But Cronin says the invitation undercuts that claim: "It says that the embassy officials and diplomats will be on hand to discuss international affairs." He calls the event an example of the "bad practices of the Clinton administration becoming institutionalized and in some ways made worse."

"Renting out Cabinet secretaries is bad enough," Cronin added, "but to boast about using Lady Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev as celebrity greeters at these fundraisers is especially crass and tacky."

Critics were quick to point out that the Democratic National Committee and its House and Senate arms engage in similar practices -- if not as boldly in recent months.

And since the House and Senate arms of the RNC are separate entities with their own staffs, the trend in the aggressiveness of the fundraising by the GOP is probably more a byproduct of the party's control over the House, Senate and White House than it is evidence of the RNC being any more sleazy than its Democratic counterpart, critics said.

The RNC fundraising operation is being led by Jack Oliver, who served in that same capacity as finance director for President Bush's presidential campaign, which raised an unprecedented $193,088,650.

Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics are joined in their criticisms by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group that achieved a name for itself as a constant critic of the Clinton administration's ethics, or lack thereof. (Judicial Watch chairman and general counsel Larry Klayman points out that his group did file complaints against Republicans such as then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.)

All three groups pointed out the hypocrisy of the RNC and its affiliated groups engaging in such practices in the Bush era, when Bush made such a point of promising to "restore honor and dignity to the White House."

"Now we know what President Bush meant when he said he wanted to 'move on'" past the Clinton scandals, Klayman said. "He apparently wants to use many of the same fundraising practices as the Clinton administration."

"The illegal fundraising of the Bush administration and the Republican Party is a cancer that, if not stopped, will spread," Klayman said, referring to the NRSC fundraiser, as well as recent incidents involving Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, R-Ill., and Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill.

On April 10, Thompson met in his government office with GOP fundraisers who had just walked over from party headquarters where they had been inviting people to a June 27 $2,500-a-ticket fundraising dinner honoring President Bush and Vice President Cheney. Thompson spokesman Tony Jewell told the Associated Press that "from our end, it was a meet-and-greet, just like we have every day (with) ... groups from Wisconsin, Kiwanis clubs, Boys and Girls clubs, people from the Miracle Children's Network, senior citizen groups."

At the end of April, the National Republican Congressional Committee was accused of selling access to White House officials like White House Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Bolton during its "Tax Reform Workshop" breakfast, at which Hastert was to serve as keynote speaker. Judicial Watch filed complaints with the Federal Election Commission, the Justice Department and the House ethics committee alleging violations of federal bribery laws as the NRCC was, in Klayman's estimation, "selling access to government officials."

Subsequent to Klayman's complaint, Hastert objected to fundraising materials faxed out under his name with a bogus handwritten version of his signature. Eventually, Hastert boycotted the very event at which he was scheduled to be the headliner. (White House political director Ken Mehlman served in his stead.)

A similar situation played out this week on the Senate side. On Wednesday, Fitzgerald resigned as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's big donor group, the Republican Senatorial Trust. Fitzgerald told reporters that he was uncomfortable with not being able to see and approve mail sent out under his name. But his resignation came in the wake of questions and negative editorials about the NRSC event.

"I think some of these representatives are a little nervous about how it all looks," Noble said. Cronin said that some Republican members seem to have a "queasiness" about being associated with fundraising practices that are so "eerily Clintonian."

Despite these dust-ups, however, it appears to be business as usual for the Republican Party. Klayman has threatened to take legal action against the NRSC if it does not cease "selling access to elected officials," he said.

Specifically, the NRSC is selling "Life Memberships" to the "Republican Senatorial Inner Circle" in conjunction with what promises to be a humongous fundraising event, its May 22-24 "briefing." For $10,000 a pop ($15,000 a couple), life members are promised access to myriad Republican officials in both the Cabinet and Senate.

"With President George W. Bush in office, some of the most exciting events you could ever imagine will become available to you," the invitation promises. Potential life members are promised that they will be "individually recognized by a U.S. Senator at a Life Member Induction Ceremony and presented with their official Life Member certificate" as well as "a specially designed, individually issued lapel pin." In addition to "VIP treatment and priority seating" at Inner Circle events, life members are also promised special "reserved seating" at presidential inaugurations.

Life member donors are told they can have access to Secretary of Commerce Don Evans, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Thompson.

Likewise, donors are promised access at a series of briefings to GOP Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee, Sam Brownback and Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming, Susan Collins of Maine, Christopher "Kit" Bond of Missouri, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Ted Stevens and Frank Murkowski of Alaska, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, John Ensign of Nevada, George Allen of Virginia, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Jim Jeffords of Vermont, Tim Hutchinson of Arkansas, Pete Domenici of New Mexico and Larry Craig of Idaho.

And as if that weren't enough, at lunch May 24, Sean Hannity of Fox News Channel will speak on "A New Movement in the Media."

NRSC spokesman Allen said that comparisons of his organization's activities with controversial fundraising practices of the Clinton administration were unfounded. "Our events are going to be held at the Capital Hilton, which is not on federal property or anything," he said.

Klayman promised that unless the RNC and the Bush administration change their activities, this is only the beginning for his organization's activism against what he sees as corrupt practices. Judicial Watch has recently filed Freedom of Information Act requests to investigate "allegations that the Bush administration -- as usual in Washington -- is giving ambassadorships to big donors."

"We believe that as conservatives, to have the legal, ethical and moral authority to suggest to others what to do, conservatives have to keep their own house in order," Klayman said. "It actually harms conservatives to look the other way from wrongdoing within our own ranks."

By Jake Tapper

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

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