The Big-Money Picture
By Dwight L. Morris
By the time the books are closed on the 1996 presidential and congressional elections, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) will have logged well over $1 billion in political contributions into its computers. However, despite the FEC's Herculean effort, millions of dollars in contributions aimed at influencing federal office holders will undoubtedly go unrecorded due to loopholes in reporting requirements at the federal level and virtually non-existent campaign finance regulation in most states. The state of Georgia provides a good example of this.
According to data collected by the FEC, media tycoon Anne Cox Chambers donated more than any other Georgia resident to federal candidates and party organizations between January 1, 1991 and December 31, 1995 $106,000 in "soft" money to Democratic Party committees and another $45,726 to Democratic candidates. According to those same FEC records, William H. Flowers, chairman of Flowers Industries in Thomasville, Ga., donated a much more modest $36,700 over this same five-year period $25,000 to his company's political action committee (PAC) and $11,700 to various Republican candidates earning him 49th place on the list of Georgia's top 50 donors.
However, Flowers is considerably more active than the FEC's numbers might suggest. As a charter member of GOPAC a PAC Newt Gingrich assumed control of in 1986 Flowers had pledged to donate at least $10,000 to help wrest control of the House from the Democrats. Between 1985 and mid-1993, Flowers made good on his promise to the tune of $210,000, and not one dime of that total found its way into the FEC computers, since, at the time, Gingrich maintained that GOPAC devoted little or no attention to electing federal candidates.
GOPAC certainly wasn't directly supporting state and local candidates either, since less than 1 percent of the $2 million it collected annually was funneled into candidate support. What GOPAC did was pay for Gingrich's travel as he criss-crossed the country spreading his conservative gospel and helping Republican candidates raise money. GOPAC also paid for a bevy of consultants many of whom did double duty for Gingrich's own campaigns who helped develop the Republican Contract with America. Flowers could not have been doing more to support Republican congressional candidates if he had donated the money directly to Gingrich's campaign something the $2,000-per-campaign contribution limit would have made impossible.
Ed Weiner of Atlanta, the founder of Wal-Mart's National Vision Centers, placed 8th on the list of top Georgia donors by virtue of his $83,900 in donations $50,000 in soft money gifts to Republican party committees and $33,900 to Republican candidates. Like Flowers, Weiner also played a behind-the-scenes political role, donating at least $10,000 a year to GOPAC.
Paul F. Thiele, president of Thiele Kaolin Company of Sandersville, Ga., gave $50,055 to Republican candidates and $6,000 to PACs, all of which the FEC dutifully recorded. The agency could not track his $10,000 annual payment to GOPAC at a time when his company faced both an anti-trust investigation by the Justice Department and mounting criticism over its failure to pay taxes on the billions of dollars of white clay it was digging out of the ground south of Atlanta.
According to FEC records, Patricia Cortelyou Winship of Transus Inc. in Jonesboro, Jim Richards, president of Southwire Company in Carrollton, and Amos R. McMullian of Flowers Industries, gave $24,600, $8,250, and $2,901, respectively, to federal candidates, party organizations and causes between January 1991 and December 1995. While none of the three came close to making the list of the state's most active political donors, each was a charter member of GOPAC. Richards gave $80,200 to help that federally invisible organization between 1985 and mid-1993; McMullian and Winship donated $62,592 and $60,000, respectively.
And GOPAC was hardly the only subterranean, quasi-political organization run by Gingrich during this period. Richards, for one, donated $5,000 to underwrite a book deal benefiting the soon-to-be House Speaker and his views. Richards also gave more than $10,000 to support a class that Gingrich taught at Kennesaw State College a class that was taped and passed out to prospective donors across the country. After Gingrich become Speaker, AT&T donated an as-yet-to-be-revealed amount to the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which produced the controversial college course and a cable television call-in show.
Gingrich was certainly not the only politician to launch a non-profit "foundation" that could operate without the troublesome requirement of reporting its benefactors to the FEC. Roughly two weeks after the 1994 elections AT&T was quick to recognize Bob Dole's rise to Majority Leader status with a $100,000 contribution to the Better America Foundation, a private foundation Dole founded. Several weeks later the foundation received another $100,000 from Tele-Communications Inc., the largest cable television operator in the country. Comsat and Time Warner weighed in with $25,000. Not surprisingly, neither Dole nor the company executives responsible for the contributions would entertain the thought that they were connected in any way to the Senate debate over telecommunications deregulation.
Perhaps wishing to avoid the untoward suggestion that they were meant to influence the debate over healthcare reform, Dole's foundation also initially decided not to disclose the fact that during the first two years of its existence (1993 and 1994) it had received $100,000 from G. D. Searle & Company, $50,000 each from American Family Life Assurance Corporation (AFLAC) and Metropolitan Life, $40,000 from American Medical Security and $10,000 each from Baxter Healthcare Corporation and Mutual of Omaha. These contributions came to light in 1995 only after they were uncovered by the media, creating a public relations nightmare for the aspiring Republican presidential nominee.
Opposed to any public financing of campaigns, Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) launched the Fair Government Foundation, which can accept corporate and individual donations to help fight the good fight. Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) launched the Alliance for Health Reform.
As the FEC continues to struggle to enforce even the weak laws now on the books, there are dozens of organizations that elude its reporting rules, including the Christian Coalition, which every two years raises and spends millions of dollars to elect Republican candidates while maintaining that it is a non-partisan organization not subject to FEC reporting requirements. How much is really raised and spent to foster political ambition at the federal level is anyone's guess.
This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.
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