By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Republican presidential candidate Fred D. Thompson has been crisscrossing the country since early this summer on a private jet lent to him by a businessman and close adviser who has a criminal record for drug dealing.
Thompson selected the businessman, Philip Martin, to raise seed money for his White House bid. Martin is one of four campaign co-chairmen and the head of a group called the "first day founders." Campaign aides jokingly began to refer to Martin, who has been friends with Thompson since the early 1990s, as the head of "Thompson's Airforce."
Thompson's frequent flights aboard Martin's twin-engine Cessna 560 Citation have saved him more than $100,000, because until the law changed in September, campaign-finance rules allowed presidential candidates to reimburse private jet owners for just a fraction of the true cost of flights.
Martin entered a plea of guilty to the sale of 11 pounds of marijuana in 1979; the court withheld judgment pending completion of his probation. He was charged in 1983 with violating his probation and with multiple counts of felony bookmaking, cocaine trafficking and conspiracy. He pleaded no contest to the cocaine-trafficking and conspiracy charges, which stemmed from a plan to sell $30,000 worth of the drug, and was continued on probation.
Thompson's campaign said the candidate was not aware of the multiple criminal cases, for which Martin served no jail time. All are described in public court records.
Karen Hanretty, Thompson's deputy communications director, said yesterday that "Senator Thompson was unaware of the information until this afternoon. Phil Martin has been a friend of the senator since the mid-1990s and remains so today." Thompson communications director Todd Harris added that Martin was not subjected to the campaign's standard vetting process because "he's a longtime friend."
"There's not a campaign in the world that has the ability to research every one of its supporters going back more than 20 years," Harris said.
Martin could not be reached in the past week, and lawyers for him in Tennessee and Florida declined to comment on the criminal cases. Hanretty said she forwarded detailed questions from The Washington Post to Martin yesterday afternoon.
Martin, 49, is one of several top political fundraisers with a criminal past to gain access this year to a presidential contender. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton decided in September to return more than $800,000 raised by Norman Hsu, one of her top bundlers, after newspapers disclosed that he had been convicted of fraud and had an outstanding warrant for his arrest.
Martin has been more than just a key fundraiser to Thompson, though. The use of his plane eases a major logistical burden stemming from the intense demands on presidential candidates this year for appearances in more than 20 states holding early primaries. It also may have saved the campaign at least $120,000, given that Federal Election Commission rules allowed Thompson to reimburse Martin for the use of the private jet at the commercial ticket rate until Congress changed the rules in September.
Thompson has reported reimbursing Martin $102,330, without specifying precisely where he flew on the plane, or when. But a comparison of flight records for the plane, kept by the tracking firm FlightAware, and news accounts of Thompson's campaign appearances this year shows that since June the plane has made more than two dozen stops that coincided with Thompson campaign events.
The destinations included a GOP fundraising luncheon in South Carolina, rallies in Houston and Dallas, a leadership conference in Indianapolis, and the Minnesota State Fair. The most recent trip was on Thursday, when the plane left Las Vegas with Thompson on board, bound for Washington, where Thompson has long been an industry lobbyist.
The Web site JetTrip.com estimates that the hourly charter rate for use of a plane similar to Martin's would be between $1,500 and $2,400, which means these flights would normally cost at least $220,000, more than double what Thompson paid.
Several other presidential candidates use private aircraft supplied by key political supporters. Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, for instance, has paid $279,000 to Elliott Asset Management, a firm headed by campaign adviser and New York financier Paul Singer, to reimburse the firm for using an airplane. Democrat John Edwards has paid $628,052 to longtime backer Fred Baron, a Dallas lawyer, for the use of his plane.
Martin's criminal history has not previously surfaced in news accounts mentioning his role as a Thompson supporter. The Chattanooga Times Free Press referred to him recently as Thompson's "mystery man."
Archived Florida court records provide details of the various cases against Martin, including alleged sports-betting activity, a cocaine deal he arranged with an undercover sheriff's deputy and carried out through a middleman, and the sale of 11 pounds of marijuana to an undercover detective for $3,400. Martin produced the marijuana from the trunk of his 1973 Cadillac as he and the detective were parked behind a Tampa area department store, according to the arrest report.
According to court records, close friends and an ex-wife, Martin arrived in Tennessee from Tampa about 1985 while serving probation for his various offenses. He set up a series of businesses, starting with the Puzzle's Pizza parlor. He opened a hardware store, and friends say he began trying to recruit business partners for more ambitious real estate ventures.
The fledgling developer also started to get involved in local and state politics. Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), a close friend of both Martin and Thompson who was then a commercial real estate broker in Chattanooga, said he and Martin met through their work and became friends because of a mutual interest in Republican politics. "He always has been a mover and shaker from the first time I knew him," Wamp said.
He and others said Martin, a gregarious and charismatic man, was a natural in the world of political cocktail chatter and back-slapping. Martin's first wife, Renee Whitfield, recalled that he and Wamp campaigned together for a GOP gubernatorial candidate in 1994. "We rode the bus to a county fair, all of us wearing our [campaign] T-shirts and passing out literature," Whitfield recalled.
Martin began spending significant time with Thompson at fundraisers for Wamp at a farm owned by one of Martin's close friends, Delwin L. Huggins, according to Huggins's ex-wife, Badia McKee. After making small donations to Wamp in 1992 and 1993, he sent his first substantial check -- $1,000 -- to Thompson in 1994.
Another $4,000 followed for Thompson's 1994 Senate bid, during which a private jet owned by a wealthy Tennessee businessman, Steven A. McKenzie, flew Martin, Thompson and others around the state, according to a source with direct knowledge of the trips. McKenzie did not respond to multiple telephone calls.
Martin "was always wanting to help candidates," Wamp said. "I assume through 10 years of political involvement, when Fred came on the scene, they immediately saw eye to eye." Martin and Thompson both stand well over 6 feet and have outsize personalities. "Hail fellows well met," is how David Copeland, a longtime local legislator from the Chattanooga area, described Martin and Thompson. "They just stood out, and people gravitated to them."
From 1992 to 2002, Martin donated more than $75,000 to GOP candidates and committees, according to FEC records. By 2000, he had become a major political player in Tennessee Republican circles.
For much of his work, Martin partnered with Huggins, whose in-laws played a key role in the Chattanooga area's commercial life. McKee is the daughter of one of the area's wealthiest residents, Ellsworth McKee. The family founded McKee Foods in 1934, and Badia McKee's sister Debbie was the namesake of its most successful product, Little Debbie snack cakes.
Wamp said the McKees employed a good portion of the Chattanooga area, and Ellsworth McKee has served as a sort of town father. As Ellsworth McKee's son-in-law, Huggins was an important early contact for Martin, Wamp said.
With Huggins's help, and access to more than $40 million in loans and investments from the McKees and others, court records show, Martin started a series of companies. He helped run Soil Restoration and Recycling LLC, and sought public funding to help clean up Chattanooga Creek.
The company joined with another Martin concern, M&M Partners, to develop a golf course and gated community to meet what they said was a growing demand for luxury housing in a town near Chattanooga, Ooltewah, according to news accounts. Martin also helped form Four Seasons Environmental, Ooltewah Properties and Aquaterra Engineering, according to public records.
The business ventures enabled Martin to accumulate personal wealth and allowed a company he controls, Martin International Resorts and Aviation LLC, to buy the jet used by Thompson.
But some of the business ventures gave rise to litigation. Martin took Tennessee businessman McKenzie to court in 2006 because of a disagreement over responsibility for the interest on a $127,500 loan. They settled the matter privately, according to Martin's attorney. Businessman Scott Hodges took Martin to court in 2005 over $220,000 in proceeds from a development deal the two had struck. That case also ended with an undisclosed out-of-court settlement, according to news reports and a source.
But the most intractable case -- one that remains unresolved -- was the one brought in 2003 by his early patron, Ellsworth McKee. McKee said in court that Martin and Huggins each borrowed $8 million from him and refused to repay it.
Martin's lawyer, John P. Konvalinka, has argued that the loan was forgiven. He said that to some, Martin's various disputes over money may seem significant, but in fact they are not. "For a man engaged in 1,000 transactions in a year, he doesn't have near the amount of litigation that some of my clients do."
Martin now lives in Alabama. He works in an office next to a private airstrip, where his small jet is based.
Research editor Alice Crites, staff writer Jonathan Weisman and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.