In the months and years that followed, prosecutors and journalists unraveled a mind-boggling array of bank accounts and revolving political committees used to launder the money. Overseen by Nixon’s finance director, Maurice Stans, the effort featured a half-dozen “pickup men” roaming the country gathering checks and cash.
The volume was so great that some donations that had been offered went uncollected, while others came in late. One New Jersey lawmaker showed up in Washington on April 10 with a briefcase filled with $200,000 in $100 bills, money eventually traced to indicted financier Robert L. Vesco; the contributions were treated as if they had been received prior to the deadline.
Overall, Nixon’s 1972 reelection effort raised an estimated $60 million — “the largest amount of money ever spent in a political campaign,” as Stans later bragged.
By 1975, prosecutors reported that 32 individuals and 19 corporations were convicted or had pleaded guilty to violations of campaign-contribution laws, including household names such as Goodyear, Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing, Northrop, American Airlines, Gulf Oil and Phillips Petroleum, records show.
Former Watergate prosecutor Frank Tuerkheimer, who now teaches law at the University of Wisconsin, said he and his colleagues viewed the cases as the beginning of a crackdown on campaign-finance violations.
‘We were wrong’
“Unfortunately, that didn’t happen,” Tuerkheimer said. “We thought it would result in serious enforcement. We were wrong.”
Congress responded to Watergate by amending the Federal Election Campaign Act in 1974, which implemented contribution and spending limits, created the FEC and provided a system of public financing for presidential contests. The Supreme Court soon struck down the spending limits and other restrictions on free-speech grounds in Buckley v. Valeo.
But donation limits and public financing remained, and, for a time, money seemed to play a smaller role in national politics. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan ran for reelection without holding a single campaign fundraiser because he and Democratic challenger Walter Mondale each accepted $40 million in public funds.
The next crack in the wall constructed by reformers came in the 1990s, after a series of FEC rulings led to the rise of unlimited “soft money” donations to parties, an atmosphere that spurred several major financing scandals during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Reformers pushed back again in 2002 with a major campaign finance law sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), which banned unlimited donations to parties, imposed new restrictions on ads and attempted to limit the impact of self-funding millionaire candidates.