Campaign reformer's "soft" spot

A New York congressman and avowed opponent of unregulated political cash is using plenty of it to try to preserve his House seat.

Published August 1, 2001 9:52PM (EDT)

For a congressman who consistently rails against the influence of money in politics, Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., has been throwing around quite a bit of it in his attempt to preserve his congressional seat in the Empire State's tough redistricting battle.

As state legislators in Albany prepare to dissolve two of the state's 31 congressional seats, Houghton, 74, a leader in the House campaign finance reform movement, has suddenly emerged as one of the state's most generous donors. This year he's sent $18,500 from his personal congressional campaign account, and $23,500 from his own wallet, to politicos in Albany who will soon decide his congressional district's fate. Members of his family gave an additional $8,000.

With the state Assembly controlled by Democrats and the state Senate by Republicans, it is assumed that each major party will lose one U.S. House seat, so Houghton's efforts are not entirely unique. The next most generous donor to Albany politicians is Rep. John Walsh, R-N.Y., who gave $32,200. New York City Democratic Reps. Carolyn Maloney, Jose Serrano and Nydia Velazquez each gave $5,000 to the Democratic Assembly Campaign Committee, and Reps. Gary Ackerman and Maurice Hinchey have gone so far as to hire lobbyists to represent their district's interests.

But Walsh and the Democrats are downright cheapskate amateurs in comparison with the generous soft-money organization Houghton formed last year with the express purpose of saving his congressional district. The Millennium Project raised $286,845 in unregulated, unlimited "soft money" donations and gave $253,000 of that money, or more than 88 percent of it, to state Senate Republicans. Houghton could not be reached for comment.

The other Republican congressman whose name is mentioned quite a bit as a possible target in redistricting, Rep. Ben Gilman, donated $270 to state politicians last year.

When Blair Horner, legislative director of the government watchdog group New York Public Interest Research Group, reviewed the Millennium Project's end-of-the-year filing in January 2001, he was taken aback. "The thing to me that was striking was that the Millennium Project was the PAC that had given more to the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee than any PAC in the state," Horner says. "That's remarkable."

And while Horner is loath to criticize Houghton for any contradiction in his word and deed, saying, "We've never argued that anyone should unilaterally disarm," he does charge that the Millennium Project's munificence "speaks volumes about how corrupt the New York redistricting process is."

The Millennium Project last year received donations of $50,000 from Houghton and $35,000 from his mother, Laura. With an estimated net worth of between $700 million and $1 billion, Houghton -- the former CEO and chairman of Corning Inc. (founded by his great-grandfather in 1851) -- is the richest member of Congress. The only former CEO of a Fortune 500 company in the club, Houghton was first elected to the House in 1986. He was reelected last year with 77 percent of the vote after outspending his opponent $801,039 to $330. A moderate and leader among the House GOP moderates on environmental issues, Houghton was one of only five House Republicans to vote against impeaching President Clinton in 1998.

The Millennium Project received ample support from various Corning officials, including outgoing chairman and CEO Roger Ackerman, who donated $5,000; Ackerman's successor, current president and COO John Loose, who gave $1,000; and director of state and local government relations Thomas Tranter Jr., who kicked in $5,000. Former Owens Corning executive Sidney Weinberg, now with Goldman, Sachs, donated $25,000.

COREPAC, the political action committee of Corning Inc., donated $5,000, as did Corning/Lasertron in Bedford, Mass.; Gilbert Engineering, acquired by Corning Inc. in October 1999; Oak Frequency Control Group in Mount Holly Springs, Pa., acquired by Corning Inc. in September 2000; and Rochester Photonics Corp., in Rochester, N.Y., a wholly owned subsidiary.

Houghton's effort "is not that unusual," says Celia Wexler, a lobbyist and senior policy analyst with Common Cause, which supports campaign finance reform. "We understand that members have leadership PACs, that they raise money for them and give money to state candidates. What is important to us is where people stand on campaign finance reform, and what they're doing to change the system, and that's really what we judge them on."

On that, Houghton gets high marks, Wexler says, including bucking his party's leadership by being one of the first to sign the discharge petition to force a vote on the campaign finance reform bill offered by Shays and Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass.

At the beginning of the year, the Millennium Project switched from being a state PAC with an emphasis on preserving the Republican majority in the state Senate to being registered as a federal PAC with an emphasis on more grass-roots activities, says Brendan Gardner, the organization's project coordinator. "We have a different focus this year," Gardner says. In 2001, the Millennium Project has raised between $60,000 and $70,000, with most of the money going toward general operating expenses and not campaign contributions, though it has given some money to campaign committees.

The group is now registered as a "527," or a tax-exempt political group with a mission that doesn't include electing a particular candidate. Based in the city of Corning in western New York state, the project has one full-time and three part-time employees, Gardner says. When the U.S. Senate passed a bill in June 2000 to require 527s to disclose their donor information, Houghton said, "Regulating so-called 527 groups is a good start, but our fear is that closing one loophole will simply open others."

Hougton spokeswoman Erica Ferri says that "this is the congressman's effort to save the district," and points to the group's recent activities, which include obtaining 90,000 signatures in a petition drive, and a "presence at every single one of New York's redistricting hearings." The Millennium Project bused in Houghton's constituents to May hearings in Syracuse and Binghamton; Houghton testified at a hearing in Buffalo last Thursday, where voters from the 31st Congressional District appeared in Team 31 T-shirts and "dominated the crowd," Ferri says.

"I'm sure he's been using some money to buy his 'Team 31' T-shirts and the bus to drive constituents to the redistricting hearings," says New York PIRG's Horner. "But clearly the impact the Millennium Project will have on redistricting will be entirely based on Congressman Houghton's ability to win friends and influence state Republicans through campaign contributions."

By Jake Tapper

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

MORE FROM Jake Tapper

Related Topics ------------------------------------------