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    Money Talks

    Pressler's Problems

    By Dwight L. Morris
    October 1, 1996

    Federal election law explicitly forbids candidates from using campaign funds to pay for personal expenses. It is also a violation of federal law for a member of Congress to tap their taxpayer-funded official office account to pay for purely campaign-related activities. However, in his quest for a fourth term, Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota appears to have bent these restrictions to the point of making them meaningless.

    Pressler is no stranger to the finest restaurants our nation's capital has to offer. Since January 1, 1991 Pressler's campaign has picked up the tab for 128 lunches and dinners totaling $16,304 at Washington's better eateries, including 36 meals at La Brasserie that cost a total of $4,511. In addition, Pressler's campaign committee has paid $33,630 for meals consumed at the Senate restaurant. Pressler and his wife have received $24,595 in reimbursements reported to the Federal Election Commission as "dinner expense," "meal expense," and "subsistence expense."

    Given the fact that we did not include in these totals any of the $113,140 in reimbursements to the Presslers for which it was impossible to break out meal expenses, such as "travel, meal, and telephone, etc." or "travel and subsistence," we have undoubtedly underestimated the extent to which Pressler is dining at campaign expense (for obvious reasons, we also did not include any reimbursements that specifically cited fund-raising as the purpose).

    When asked to explain these substantial dining charges, Pressler's campaign responded by fax that "the meals were either for fund-raising meetings, fund-raising events, and occasionally, meals with members of the press." That response appears to jive poorly with reality, as the figures for 1991 clearly illustrate.

    Down to Subsistence

    During the first six months of 1991, when his contributions amounted to just $4,827, Pressler billed his campaign for the following meals at posh Washington, DC restaurants: a $633.43 dinner at the Ritz Carlton; a $347.09 dinner at Galileo's; and a $200 dinner at Sfuzzi's. Pressler and his wife collected more than $1,500 in reimbursements for "meals" and "subsistence." Charges at the Senate restaurant picked up by the campaign committee totaled $3,346.29.

    During the final six months of 1991, Pressler raised just $28,487. Yet, after incurring five bills for "catering" totaling $2,755 – which we are assuming were legitimate fund-raising expenditures – Pressler found it necessary to bill his campaign for the following meals in Washington: a $494 "meeting and dinner expense" at Adirondacks, a $45.06 dinner at Sfuzzi's, a $162.33 "meeting and dinner expense" at Adirondacks, two meals totaling $69.75 at Hunan on Capitol Hill, two meals totaling a $166.35 at Hawk's, a $67.27 dinner at the Four Seasons, a $280.65 "meal and meeting expense" at Sutton Place Gourmet, a $64.66 dinner at Sfuzzi's, a $62.68 dinner at La Colline, a $92.31 dinner at the Ritz Carlton, and a $308.05 dinner at Bice's. That does not include the $549.77 in reimbursements Harriet Pressler received for dinner expenses or the $8,266.50 the senator collected as reimbursements itemized only as "subsistence." Senate restaurant charges during this period amounted to $5,042.

    The $200 Cloak

    Adding to this troubling pattern is the fact that Pressler's campaign has failed to itemize $175,115 of its spending, including $95,711 in unitemized credit card payments – an average of more than $44 per day over the first five-and-a-half years of the election cycle. Taking maximum advantage of federal regulations that require campaigns to itemize only payments to any person or vendor that receives an aggregate of at least $200 in any given year, the campaign also left $79,404 completely unitemized. Including $169,648 in vaguely itemized reimbursements to himself, Pressler would have us believe that his campaign spent $344,763 with vendors who never received as much as $200 in any given year – possible, but highly unlikely.

    To put these numbers in perspective, the average Senate incumbent seeking reelection in 1990 failed to itemize only $39,597 – less than one-fourth of Pressler's unitemized through June 30. On average, those seeking reelection in 1992 failed to itemize $48,379. At the very least, Pressler's non-disclosure should prompt an FEC audit, although that is highly unlikely given the agency's past enforcement record.

    This is not the first time that Pressler's campaign expenditures have been questioned. During 1989, Pressler paid Rockville, Md. resident Nellie Origaen a total of $1,762 for what his campaign finance documents called "catering services." When queried about her work for the campaign by a reporter for the Gannett News Service in 1990, Origaen replied, "I clean their townhouse every week, that's all."

    Despite campaign assurances that Pressler's travel bills were also entirely related to his fund-raising activities, a good bit of his travel expenditures, particularly during the first two years of the election cycle, appear suspect, as well.

    Pressler ended his 1990 reelection effort with cash reserves of $467,183 and no debts. He had absolutely no need to raise money, and indeed, during the month of December 1990, Pressler reported only one transaction on the revenue side of his campaign balance sheet – a $1,000 refund to Hava Gecaj, a supporter from the Bronx. Yet, on December 10, Pressler tapped his campaign treasury to pay his $376 "lodging & dinner expense" at San Francisco's Fairmont Hotel. Roughly two weeks later – on Christmas eve to be exact – the campaign picked up his $951 tab at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida.

    A Fund-Raiser With No Funds

    As I have pointed out in several previous columns, members of Congress tend to raise money continuously, and, despite the fact that campaign spending documents provided no indication that the trips were fund-raising excursions, it seemed plausible that the two 1990 trips might have involved receptions that produced checks deposited early in 1991. And, in fact, when queried about the purpose of the trips, the Pressler campaign responded that they were fund-raising trips. However, a search of Federal Election Commission records shows that Pressler reported no contributions of $200 or more from either California or Florida during that entire year.

    Nor, as it turns out could the trips have been for fund-raisers held in November or December of 1990. As noted above, he collected no contributions of $200 or more during December, and in November, raised no such contributions in Florida and only $1,500 from California – none of it from the San Francisco bay area.

    On January 17, 1991, the campaign paid Pressler's $1,283 bill for "lodging, meal & telephone expenses" at the Regency Hotel in New York, and roughly six months later, the campaign forked over another $1,132.48 to the same hotel. A stay at New York's St. Regis Hotel in September, 1991, cost the campaign another $2,287.90. Once again, Pressler's campaign insisted that these travel expenses were incurred in conjunction with his fund-raising activities. However, the evidence suggests that if the purpose really was to raise money, Pressler had incredibly bad luck. During all of 1991, he raised a total of $4,500 from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut residents who gave at least $200.

    Overall, during the first four years of the election cycle Pressler raised only $482,478 – $185,990 less than he spent. If the numerous dinners in Washington and frequent trips California, New York and Florida were related to fund-raising, one would have to conclude that he is lousy at it. In 1995, he began demonstrating quite clearly that he is anything but a lousy fund-raiser. Since January 1, 1995, Pressler has raised $2,940,242.

    Lobbyists Picked Up The Tab

    Once Pressler began his serious fund-raising push (and, not coincidentally once Republicans had control of Congress) a large share of his fund-raising expenses were picked up directly by lobbyists and corporations with interests before committees on which he sits, quickly filling his coffers and casting further doubt on the claim that all the meals and travel were related to his fund-raising efforts. Over the past eighteen months, Pressler has benefited from so-called "in-kind" fund-raising expenditures totaling $12,145, including events sponsored by UPS, the Motion Picture Association of America, Ameritech, GTE, Time Warner Inc., Union Pacific, Peter F. McCloskey (President of the Electronics Industry Association), Gay H. Friedman (a lobbyist representing the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America), and James H. Mack (a lobbyist representing the Association for Manufacturing Technology).

    When someone else wasn't picking up the tab, Pressler's reports clearly indicated which expenses were related to his search for cash. Payments to organizations such as the Harvard Club, the University Club and the Regent Four Seasons Hotel in New York – which did not appear in the early years – clearly stated "expense for fundraising event."

    During the past eighteen months, he has reimbursed fifteen corporations and lobbyists for expenses they incurred in setting up fund-raising receptions, including Paramount Pictures, Rupert Murdoch's News America Publications Inc., Hubbard Broadcasting, and Liberty Media, which owns broadcast and cable television outlets. One fund-raising invitation, which clearly noted that it was "paid for and authorized by the Friends of Larry Pressler," invited donors to join Murdoch, Ted Turner, former MCA chairman Lew Wasserman, Motion Picture Association head Jack Valenti, Terry Semel of Warner Brothers Pictures, and a host of other Hollywood luminaries at a $500-a-head reception.

    'Demonstrated Knowledge Of GATT'

    In a blatant recognition of his ability to sell his new-found position as chairman of the Commerce Committee, Pressler's invitation noted that he "plays a unique role in setting the broadcasting, cable television, telephone and other telecommunications policies that will shape America's communications infrastructure into the next century." The pandering continued, "though his membership on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over all tax and trade matters, Senator Pressler has demonstrated his knowledge of GATT, GII and other matters of interest to industries active in the international marketplace." Recipients were asked to send their $500 check and RSVP to the Motion Picture Association of America, which presumably bundled some of the checks and passed them on to Pressler.

    What makes this overt pitch for money in exchange for access particularly troubling is that the cost of getting him to California to collect this money was apparently picked up in part by federal taxpayers. According to the Report of the Secretary of the Senate, from April 7 through April 23, 1995, Pressler traveled from Washington to Sioux Falls. Had the trip stopped there, all would have been fine. Instead, he continued his travels with stops in Las Vegas, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, and Peoria, IL. before returning to Sioux Falls. From there he returned to Washington. To help pay for this trip he collected $1,532.80 from his Senate Office account and $2,600.19 from the coffers of the Senate Commerce Committee.

    No doubt, for appearances sake and to justify tapping the federal treasury for part of the cost of this jaunt, Pressler conducted some official business at most of his stops. However, fueled by the federal tax dollars that helped get him there, he clearly never missed an opportunity to collect campaign contributions. While in Las Vegas he collected at least 10 checks totaling $7,000. Once in California, he scooted up to his Hollywood fund-raiser held at Paramount Studios on April 13 – an event that brought him at least fifteen checks totaling $8,750. In Denver, he stopped by a reception at the Broker restaurant, which was attended by representatives of US West, Comsat, QWEST Communications, and cable television giant Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) – all of which, like the Hollywood crowd a few days earlier, had considerable interest in the landmark telecommunications bill that was beginning to work its way through Pressler's committee. With $2,250 from US West, $2,000 from Comsat, $5,500 from various QWEST employees, $10,000 from TCI, and $2,000 from oil and gas magnate Philip Anschutz and his wife, the brief stop was well worth it. When he got to Chicago, he found time to collect at least fifteen checks totaling $19,000.

    And this is not the only time Pressler seems to have built taxpayer-subsidized trips to South Dakota around fund-raising stops in other states. A fund-raising trip to Dallas which netted at least $7,700 was squeezed into a nine day trip to South Dakota in May and June of 1995. Heading home for nine days in October 1995, Pressler first stopped in New York where he collected more than $38,000 for his reelection fund. A three-week trip home beginning in December 1995 also included a stop in Miami to collect more than $12,000. While we know Pressler tapped his official office account for $14,611 to cover the cost of these three trips, his campaign reports make it impossible to tell whether any of the travel costs were picked up by the campaign, as required by law.

    However assembled, Pressler's sizable campaign war chest enabled him to begin airing television commercials designed with the aide of New York-based pollster Arthur J. Finkelstein and produced by Chris Mottola of Philadelphia in May, 1995 – an almost unheard of eighteen months before he would face Democratic Rep. Tim Johnson. Despite canceling his advertising barrage for several months, that astoundingly early push caused Pressler to invest nearly $750,000 in broadcast ads through the end of June, 1996. Advertising buys placed through Multi Media Services Corp. of Alexandria, Va. totaled $540,725.

    In all, Pressler's broadcast advertising outlays accounted for 31 percent of his spending through the first five and one-half years of the election cycle. If the money is there to keep the ads going, they may very well account for 60 percent of his total spending by the time all the bills are added up.

    No fund-raising slouch himself, Johnson began airing his commercials in September, 1995. The ads, created by Strubble & Oppel Communications and placed by Media Strategies & Research, had cost Johnson $360,288 through the end of June – 28 percent of the $1,295,477 he had spent.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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