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Scandal In Plain Sight

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A sitting president collecting secret cash in unlimited sums from corporations and wealthy favor-seekers.

This might sound outrageous, and it is. But it's also perfectly legal, as fundraisers for sitting presidents work to fill the coffers of future presidential libraries with six- and seven-figure checks.

This is an underappreciated scandal of bipartisan dimensions. Bill Clinton did it -- with much ensuing embarrassment, as his last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich came after Rich's ex-wife had donated $450,000 to Clinton's presidential library. Now, it's George W. Bush's turn.

My immediate impetus for raising this topic is a sting operation by the Sunday Times of London. The Times duped Texas consultant Stephen Payne into believing that an exiled Kazakh politician wanted to arrange meetings between Kyrgyzstan's former president, Askar Akayev, and Bush administration officials.

Bush himself might be tough, Payne told the politician, known to him as Eric Dos. But Vice President Cheney is "possible," Payne added. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser Stephen Hadley -- that might be arranged.

Then Payne segued into how. "I think that the family, children, whatever, should probably look at making a contribution to the Bush library," Payne suggested. "It would be like, maybe a couple of hundred thousand dollars . . . not a huge amount but enough to show that they're serious. . . . I think that would probably get the attention of the people raising the money." Payne's firm, he said, would require an additional $450,000.

Unfortunately for Payne, Dos was actually working for the Sunday Times, which posted an unflattering video of the conversation. Payne said in a statement that he was entrapped and his words misconstrued, and that his later e-mails made clear that there was no quid pro quo. "Over the course of an hour-long conversation in a social setting, isolated comments can be taken out of context," he said.

Payne's résumé reads like a classic tale of political back-scratching -- a man who did well while doing good for political allies. He was a Bush "Pioneer" in 2000, raising at least $100,000, and a "Ranger" in 2004, collecting more than $200,000. He told Dos that he had brought in more than $1 million for the GOP.

Payne was rewarded in the ordinary ways, small but useful. He served on the 2001 Inaugural Committee and now sits on an advisory panel for the Department of Homeland Security. His firm's Web site advertised that Payne "assists the White House as a Senior Advance Representative traveling internationally in advance of and with" Bush and Cheney, and that he "facilitated discussions" between Cheney and President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan, a leader as autocratic as he is corrupt.

I'm not suggesting that the Bush administration is knowingly peddling access to senior officials in exchange for library donations. There's no evidence that "the people raising the money" for the library would deliver what Payne was dangling. The library probably won't accept foreign donations -- while Bush is in office, anyway. But letting sitting presidents raise money for their future libraries -- and secretly -- is a recipe for this sort of sleaze.

My first encounter with this subject came in October 1999, when I wrote a news story for The Post reporting that Clinton's fundraisers had collected more than $20 million in secret pledges. There was not a single question about the story at the next day's White House briefing. The issue exploded only after the pardons.

The Bush library won't say how much it has collected in gifts or pledges, and it got an extension for filing the tax form that would provide the information, spokesman Dan Bartlett said.

Presidents -- more precisely, the people who raise money for presidents -- recoil at postponing library fundraising until their term ends. Bringing in $250 million is a lot easier when your guy is still in charge.

The argument for keeping the names of donors secret is that some admirers might not want their generosity on public display. But a presidential library is no ordinary charity. It is built with private money and turned over to the National Archives to operate. If requiring disclosure might deter a generous patron with a penchant for anonymity from giving, so be it.

There ought to be a law. Actually, there would be one if it weren't for Republican Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska. A measure requiring disclosure of library donations -- during a presidency and for four years afterward -- has twice passed the House. But Stevens blocked the measure in March, arguing that it was unfair to "change the rules" on Bush -- even as library officials claim they haven't really started fundraising.

Mr. President, take a look at the video. Then decide whether taking checks in secret is really how you want to end your presidency.

marcusr@washpost.com


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