No Secret Cash

Sunday, March 2, 2008

IMAGINE a country whose leader collected huge sums for his personal benefit from corporations, from wealthy individuals with interests before the government and maybe even from foreign countries. Imagine that the leader didn't have to reveal anything about the size of the checks or their sources. If this sounds like some corrupt, second-rate republic, think again. It's happened right here, in the United States, and it may be about to happen all over again. We refer, of course, to George W. Bush's presidential library, which recently finalized an agreement with Southern Methodist University to build a library, museum and public policy institute there, at an estimated cost of around $250 million. Asked at his news conference Thursday whether he would disclose the identities of donors to the library, President Bush hedged. "We'll look at the disclosure requirements and make a decision," he said, noting that "some people . . . like to give and don't particularly want their names disclosed, whether it be for this foundation or any other foundation. And so we'll take that into consideration."

Wrong answer, and we hope it reflects only that the president hasn't spent much time thinking this through. If Mr. Bush doesn't already know, he'll quickly find out: There aren't any real requirements for revealing donors. Lobbyists who contribute more than $200 to the library have to report their donations; any other gifts can be kept secret, even the "foreign money" that Mr. Bush said he'd "probably take." It was an outrage when Mr. Bush's predecessor, President Bill Clinton, collected millions of dollars in secret money for his library while in office. Just how outrageous became clear as Mr. Clinton left the presidency, when he granted a pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich; Mr. Rich's ex-wife had given $450,000 to the Clinton library.

Granted, presidents can't stuff the money in their pockets and walk off, but the libraries, as monuments to their presidencies and vehicles for their post-presidential activities, are important to them. At the same time, these are public facilities; although built with private donations, the libraries are ultimately operated by the National Archives. Presidents want to collecting checks in office, when the money flows most easily, which is precisely the problem. If libraries are to be funded this way, the public has a strong interest in knowing where the money comes from.

The House has passed a measure that would require such disclosure; it's been stalled in the Senate. When it came up Tuesday, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said he would allow the bill to move forward -- but only if it took effect after Jan. 21, 2009. He said it was unfair to "change the rules" on Mr. Bush -- even though library fundraising hasn't really started. Legislative action is preferable, but until then, Mr. Bush and his fundraisers should conclude that anonymous donations aren't worth the cost.

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