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Gilmore's Campaign Contributions Scrutinized

By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 1997; Page B01

RICHMOND, Oct. 17 -- During the last year, tobacco giant Philip Morris gave $1,000,153 to the three major national Republican Party fund-raising committees that contribute to state campaigns, according to federal election reports.

In roughly that same period, the three committees gave $1,085,163 to Republican James S. Gilmore III in his bid for Virginia governor.

Critics question whether there was a connection between the Philip Morris donations and the money that went to Gilmore, a former state attorney general. Republicans say that the money was part of $26 million donated this year to the national groups by many different sources and that there is no reason to believe the Philip Morris money ended up with Gilmore.

No one suggests that the GOP, the Gilmore campaign or Philip Morris -- the cigarette maker once based here and still the biggest employer in the capital of this tobacco-growing state -- did anything improper. But those pushing for changes in campaign finance laws say the fact that the money given to Gilmore cannot be traced to its original donor is an example of the limitations of federal and state disclosure policies.

Ann McBride, president of Common Cause, a Washington-based nonprofit watchdog group, said: "It's frankly impossible to know definitively what went on here. But it does raise a question of whether the party committees were used to launder tobacco money to a campaign and frustrate disclosure laws."

Gilmore aides said there was no connection between the tobacco donations to the GOP groups and those groups' gifts to Gilmore's campaign.

They said that $335,000 of the money Philip Morris gave GOP groups was donated before the 1996 elections and likely was used for that purpose, not directed to Gilmore. They also noted that other donors gave nearly as much to GOP groups as Philip Morris did during the same year-long period that ended Sept. 30.

"In 1996, the [Republican National Committee's] money was spent primarily in congressional and presidential elections," said Gilmore spokesman Mark A. Miner. "It's deliberately false and misleading to link any national corporate or individual donors to the Gilmore campaign."

Gilmore was criticized by Democrats for accepting tobacco industry contributions while using his office to defend the industry's objections to proposed federal regulations last October, and again in March for taking a Philip Morris jet to attend a $50,000 company fund-raiser. Gilmore since has emphasized that he favors efforts to keep tobacco away from children. He has received $152,000 directly from tobacco interests.

Republican National Committee communications director Cliff May called any suggestion of a connection between the company's gifts to GOP committees and their giving to Gilmore "bogus" and selective.

"You can take pretty much any contribution and any candidate and try to find such a correlation," May said. "Philip Morris has been supporting the Republican Party and the Democratic Party for years, and it should come as no surprise to anyone that the RNC is backing the two candidates for governor in 1997."

Republican Congressional and Senate committee representatives Mary Crawford and Stuart Roy said there was no connection between Philip Morris donations and what Gilmore's campaign has received from the groups.

Philip Morris gave the national GOP $2.5 million in the 1996 elections.

Darienne L. Dennis, Phillip Morris's director of communications, said company executives would not comment on the contributions.

The only other governor's race this year is in New Jersey, where Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman faces Democrat James McGreevey. In part because New Jersey limits the amount candidates may receive from national party groups, Whitman's campaign has received only a few thousand dollars from such organizations, although $760,000 has been spent for GOP television ads.

But in Virginia -- where there are no limits on how much a group or individual may give a candidate -- the infusion of money from difficult-to-track party sources has helped to give Gilmore a 2 to 1 cash advantage over Lt. Gov. Donald S. Beyer Jr., the Democratic candidate for governor. As of Sept. 30, the most recent date for which figures are available, Gilmore had $1.1 million on hand, while Beyer had about $426,000.

Both candidates are continuing to raise money, and Beyer, a millionaire car dealer, is wealthy enough to use his own money to give his campaign a boost in the final weeks before the Nov. 4 election. In all, Gilmore had raised $7.2 million as of Sept. 30 to Beyer's $6.6 million in what is on pace to be the most expensive fall campaign for governor in Virginia history.

Beyer has received less than $200,000 from scandal- and debt-burdened Democratic Party groups. This week the Democrat canceled several reserved ad spots downstate to focus on Northern Virginia, an expensive media market but a region loaded with moderate and women voters, whom Beyer has targeted as the key to his election.

Philip Morris has given $73,500 directly to Gilmore, who was the state's attorney general for 3 1/2 years until he resigned in June to campaign for governor. Beyer has received no backing from the tobacco industry this year.

As attorney general, Gilmore declined to join the multistate class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry and opposed federal regulation of tobacco as a drug. Beyer supports federal regulation of the industry.

Critics of Virginia's wide-open campaign finance system say that because tobacco regulation has become a campaign issue, industry supporters may not want to risk a public backlash by giving Gilmore large donations directly. By donating to political party organizations that direct money to candidates, critics say, the tobacco industry -- or any other group -- could mask their efforts to help a certain candidate.

Beyer said today that the pattern of the Gilmore campaign's receipt of party donations and tobacco industry contributions was a "troubling, even compelling" combination, and he repeated his attacks on Gilmore as beholden to cigarette makers.

"Virginia has no campaign finance limits, so why not take the money directly into the campaign?" asked Beyer, campaigning in Virginia Beach. "Full disclosure of $1 million of tobacco money would make it impossible for Virginia voters to believe that he could put children's health above the tobacco interests."

Beyer has been criticized by Virginia tobacco growers since November, when he said he would support the federal regulations on the crop. Before that, he took $11,700 from the industry in 1996 -- including $10,000 from Philip Morris -- and $13,000 in his 1993 campaign.

No other GOP candidate in the United States has received more than Gilmore from the GOP groups this year. Republicans in New Jersey have spent $760,000 from the national groups for TV ads that speak to issues and do not directly mention Whitman, making them outside the donation limits to candidates. Virginia's party has received about $200,000 for campaign-related expenses from the Republican National Committee and the Republican Governors' Association.

Beyer has received $120,000 from Democratic national committees, and Virginia's Democratic Party has gotten $51,000 from the groups.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


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