A Washington watchdog group is charging that Ralph Nader's presidential campaign benefited from "illegal" assistance provided by right-wing organizations -- at the behest of his supposed opponents in the Bush-Cheney campaign.
According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington -- whose name sounds as if Nader could once have been its founder -- the Nader presidential campaign received illicit assistance for its petition drive in Oregon last weekend from two local conservative organizations, which were "encouraged" by President Bush's campaign committee.
Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, plans to file a complaint on Tuesday with the Federal Election Commission, charging that Nader and his conservative enablers in Oregon violated the federal statute prohibiting corporate contributions to presidential candidates.
Accused in Sloan's complaint along with the Nader and Bush campaigns will be Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Oregon Family Council, whose leaders have acknowledged that they are trying to help the "independent" gadfly win a place on the state's November presidential ballot. The two conservative groups admit that they are backing President George W. Bush, and quite frankly describe Nader as nothing more than a convenient instrument to drain support from Democrat John Kerry in a closely fought battleground state.
In recent weeks, the Oregon conservative groups deployed their phone banks to contact Republican voters, urging them to attend a Nader rally in Portland on Saturday, where the candidate's organizers sought to gather enough signatures to place him on the ballot. Although only 1,000 valid signatures are needed, the Nader campaign had already tried once and failed last April, when only 750 voters showed up at a similar event. On Saturday, with CSE and OFC phoning and organizing their members to rally behind Nader, more than 1,150 voters turned out and signed the petition.
As Russ Walker of Citizens for a Sound Economy explained, "We disagree with Ralph Nader's politics, but we'd love to see him make the ballot." Walker even posted a "phone script" on his group's Web site that offered activists talking points to convince their fellow conservatives to sign Nader petitions.
Mike White, director of the Oregon Family Council, which focuses on social issues such as abortion and gay rights, was equally candid: "We aren't bashful about [aiding Nader]. We are a conservative, pro-family organization, and Bush is our guy on virtually every issue."
But Sloan said their telephone campaign -- and any other assistance provided by the right-wing outfits in Oregon -- was unlawful. "Both of these groups are 501C4 corporations," she said, referring to the section of the federal tax code under which such political "educational" outfits are exempt from taxation. "They are corporations, and therefore can't make donations. The phone calls are an in-kind corporate contribution prohibited by the Federal Election Commission."
Sloan has also included the Bush-Cheney campaign itself in her complaint. "Apparently the Bush campaign encouraged these calls and may have even allowed some of them to have been made from Bush campaign headquarters," she told Salon. "It is illegal to solicit a corporation for a campaign donation so Bush-Cheney, by soliciting CSE and OFC to make calls, would have been soliciting a prohibited in-kind corporate donation."
The alleged violations, Sloan added, resemble those charged to TRMPAC, the committee used by Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to funnel corporate contributions into Republican legislative races in his home state. A Texas grand jury is currently investigating whether DeLay and TRMPAC violated laws that outlaw corporate spending in the state's elections.
Sloan's new complaint about the Oregon scheme will actually be filed as an amendment to a complaint her organization sent to the FEC on June 25. Her original complaint charged that the Nader campaign had violated federal election law by leasing its Washington headquarters space and telephones from a Nader-affiliated nonprofit called Citizen Works.
That strange arrangement, first reported in Salon last March, was the subject of a front-page investigative story in the Washington Post on June 13. The Post article quoted FEC documents showing that Nader also used Citizen Works facilities in his 2000 campaign.
In addition to the FEC complaint, Sloan's organization has also filed an official complaint with the IRS, alleging that the Citizen Works lease violated federal restrictions on political activity by charitable organizations.
"Ralph Nader seems to think that because he founded Citizen Works, he can use the organization as he sees fit; this includes using the charity to assist his campaign," Sloan said in announcing the complaint. "No one, not even Ralph Nader, is exempt from campaign finance and tax laws."
The Nader campaign has dismissed the CREW complaint as "completely frivolous and without merit," and described charges that it received unlawful aid from Citizen Works as "totally false."
Whatever the eventual outcome of Sloan's legal action, her complaint points to a troubling aspect of Nader's 2004 crusade. Following his rebuff last Sunday by the Green Party at its national convention in Milwaukee, which rejected his candidacy in favor of a little-known party activist, he could now face a difficult challenge achieving ballot access in dozens of states. The temptation will be great to accept financial and organizational help from conservative Republicans who want him to divert progressive votes from Kerry. Indeed, he has accepted help from Republicans not only this year, when they have contributed thousands of dollars to his war chest, but in 2000, when the Republican Leadership Council sponsored television ads on his behalf in Wisconsin, Washington and Oregon.
Yet Nader still insists that he will draw more votes from Bush than from Kerry. He often makes that dubious claim while campaigning in New Hampshire, where four years ago he almost certainly played a role in delivering the state to Bush. No matter what Nader may say to exculpate himself, it's becoming difficult to believe that he truly wants anything except attention for himself -- and another four years of Republican rule.