House Of Cards

David Rosen with Hillary Clinton at a White House holiday event.
David Rosen with Hillary Clinton at a White House holiday event. (Courtesy David Rosen)
By April Witt
Sunday, October 9, 2005

The caller lied easily. He'd had practice. It was Raymond Reggie, a New Orleans businessman and Democratic activist who happened to be Sen. Edward Kennedy's brother-in-law. He also happened to be in a lot of trouble.

Reggie was calling for David Rosen, a Chicago-based political fundraiser. When Rosen's receptionist asked his name, Reggie responded, "Tell him it's his only friend in the whole wide world from Mardi Gras Town, U.S.A."

Reggie wasn't David Rosen's friend. Rosen just didn't know that yet.

This was August 29, 2002. Reggie was telephoning at the request of the FBI, to which he was beholden because of a spectacularly unsuccessful attempt at bank fraud. The bureau had Reggie on a hook and was using him as bait to try to prompt Rosen, a top fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, to implicate himself in a violation of federal election law. Rosen had no idea the FBI was secretly recording the call when he came on the line and heard his purported pal joke about the piped-in radio programming he'd endured on hold.

"Have you contemplated possibly just putting some jazz on?" Reggie teased.

"Yeah," Rosen said. "But I won't do it. I'm a stubborn NPR guy."

Rosen, then 35, was stubborn in a sunny, likeable Midwestern way. He had a stubborn faith in his ability to succeed through hard work, stubborn loyalty to his friends and a stubborn certainty that electing Democrats was good for the country. The boyish-looking Rosen once sold books door to door, a tough line of work in which only the resilient thrive. The experience left Rosen a valuable political property: a man unembarrassed to smile and ask anyone anywhere to write a check. Rosen had been national finance director of Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign, at the time the most expensive U.S. Senate campaign in history. In all, he'd helped raise roughly $100 million for Democratic candidates from the ward to the White House. He had every reason to expect fellow Democrats like Reggie might be grateful.

Instead, a deceptively jocular Reggie steered their phone conversation in a direction that his FBI handlers hoped would lead to damaging confessions: toward a mutual acquaintance named Aaron Tonken. An operatically manic Hollywood charity fundraiser, Tonken was so high-strung that Rosen liked to joke the guy was tri-polar. Tonken had facial tics as pronounced as his chutzpah. From nothing but gall and patter, Tonken had crafted an image of himself as the ultimate celebrity wrangler, able to deliver performers from Red Buttons to Natalie Cole to lend glitz to fundraising events. Tonken had been the force behind the Hollywood Gala Salute to President William Jefferson Clinton -- a star-studded August 2000 benefit for Hillary Clinton's successful Senate campaign.

It was Tonken who had arranged for an Internet entrepreneur named Peter Paul to co-host the gala. But Paul turned out to be a convicted felon. Not long after the gala, the media company Paul co-founded collapsed amid allegations of securities fraud. Paul hopped a plane to Brazil without so much as a presidential pardon in his suitcase. Sore, he sued the Clintons -- and Rosen, too -- alleging he'd spent nearly $2 million producing the gala -- five times more than campaign officials told the Federal Election Commission that the gala cost in donated goods and services. The reason Paul gave in his lawsuit for his generosity was even more startling: He wanted to buy access and influence and to entice the president to work for his company after leaving office. The Clintons, through their lawyer, denied any wrongdoing and fought unsuccessfully to extricate themselves from Paul's civil suit.

The plot and characters surrounding the Hollywood gala sounded like a darkly comic movie, a send-up of greed and corruption. Except that Paul's allegations of failed influence peddling had inspired real, live G-men to start investigating who had paid for the gala, how much and why. Now those FBI agents had made Kennedy's brother-in-law a bit player in the unfolding drama.

Reggie's faux-friend performance on the phone didn't yield incriminating statements. Rosen told Reggie he had no idea that Tonken had run up gala costs by catering to stars' demands for expensive perks in exchange for "donating" their performances at the gala.

"We would have had to report that" to the FEC as a campaign contribution, Rosen said as the FBI recorder spun.

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