RNC's finance director behind controversial fundraising pitch

By Ann Gerhart and Alice Crites
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

In the three days since the leak of a confidential and crude Republican fundraising pitch, the party's leaders have scrambled to distance themselves from the 72-page PowerPoint depiction of President Obama as a socialist Joker -- and from the man behind it. Michael S. Steele, the Republican National Committee chairman, declared the pitch inappropriate and said it was the work of a "staffer."

But Rob Bickhart, who presented the document during a retreat at a Florida resort, is no low-level staffer.

He's the RNC's finance director -- and a veteran operative in party politics at the national level. During a career that spans more than 30 years, he has served in senior jobs in the Reagan administration, the Senate and the regional transit authority in Philadelphia. In between, he has raised piles of cash for campaigns and earned lucrative fees as a hospital lobbyist.

When Steele hired Bickhart, 53, in May, he praised "his political savvy, extensive campaign experience and rock-solid reputation as a fundraiser" as "indispensable assets" for a party hungry to take back power in the Senate and the House.

Since then, the RNC has paid Bickhart and a consultancy he owns $370,000, according to Federal Election Committee records. At the RNC's winter retreat last month in Hawaii, Bickhart gave several presentations, including one to reporters on the impact of the Supreme Court decision overturning a key law that restricted corporate giving.

Attempts to reach Bickhart for comment were unsuccessful, and he has not spoken publicly since the controversy began Wednesday, when Politico published the document, which was leaked by a Democrat who found the booklet left behind at the Boca Grande hotel in Florida. Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman and MSNBC host, called Thursday for the RNC to fire Bickhart for using caricature and "fear" to motivate big-money donors.

In a Fox News interview, Steele said he has asked Bickhart to get to the bottom of what the chairman acknowledged was "unfortunate" and "inappropriate."

"A staffer was putting together a presentation for a small group of nine or 10 folks and thought they would intersperse their presentation with humorous shots," said Steele, who was not at the Florida retreat and had not seen the packet until it came into public view. "I've asked the director to take a look at how this package was put together, who was responsible for it, and we'll deal with it internally."

Steele's spokesman, Doug Heye, said Bickhart made the presentation in Florida.

Bickhart, whose consulting firm, Capitol Resource Group, is based in West Conshohocken, Pa., was a longtime ally and chief fundraiser for former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). He also was executive director of Santorum's charity, Operation Good Neighbor, criticized in 2006 for its high overhead and low donation rate, and for accepting large checks from the senator's donors. The charity fundraising had a whiff of "extortion," The Washington Post editorialized at the time, soon after Bickhart quit his charity role.

Bickhart's firm continued to be paid by Santorum's political action committee through September 2009, earning more than $470,000 over six years, according to FEC reports.

When he joined the RNC last year, Bickhart resigned as a registered lobbyist for several Philadelphia hospitals, who had paid him more than $300,000 since 2008.

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