Undisclosed Donations Aided GOP Cause in '96By Guy Gugliotta and Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 30, 1997; Page A01
A $3 million political advertising blitz aimed at bolstering Republican candidates in the closing weeks of the 1996 election was financed by previously undisclosed donations from leading conservative contributors, documents obtained by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee show.
The donors' identities were shielded from public view because the groups that conducted the advertising argued they were not covered by federal election laws since they did not directly advocate the election or defeat of particular candidates.
However, Senate investigators obtained a list of donors who financed the campaign. They contributed to Triad Management, a GOP consulting firm that advised conservatives where to put their money, and two affiliates run by Triad, Citizens for the Republic Education Fund and Citizens for Reform. The affiliates financed television and radio commercials and sent out mass mailings in what their officials have said was an effort to counter organized labor's efforts on behalf of Democrats.
The documents obtained by the committee offered a rare glimpse into the usually secret world of the campaign spending by nonprofit organizations. Because their expenditures are not covered by campaign law, advocacy groups like Triad, which are funded by a few low-profile large contributors, almost never disclose the sources of their funding.
Efforts to modify or control such "issue advocacy" advertising has brought congressional supporters of campaign finance reform into conflict with organizations of all political stripes who say such action would violate their free-speech rights.
The Triad documents suggest that as much as $1.3 million for Triad and the affiliates came from the Cone family of Pennsylvania. Robert Cone and his brother Edward Cone, former executives of the Graco childrens products company, are big donors to conservative congressional candidates and conservative political action committees.
The Senate documents show that Edward and Jane Cone gave $100,000 to Citizens for Reform and $300,000 to Citizens for the Republic Education Fund, as well as making direct contributions to candidates who benefited from the groups' ads. Robert Cone also made payments to Triad of $175,000, documents show.
In addition, Triad and the affiliates received $750,000 from a Philadelphia trust that investigators believe is linked to the Cones. The trust contributions were made in wire transfers from the same bank Edward Cone used to make his Triad payments, investigators said. Finally, investigators noted that several small contributions to Triad and its affiliates came from Pennsylvania and may also be linked to the Cones.
Secretaries to both Cones said they did not wish to answer questions about the donations.
Another huge contribution to Triad's affiliates $1.3 million came from the Economic Education Trust, which Senate investigators believe is tied to the Koch family of Kansas, longtime contributors to GOP causes. Koch Industries separately gave $2,000 to Triad, the documents show.
Investigators said Triad spent heavily in Senate and House campaigns in Kansas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, states where the Koch family had made many "hard money" contributions direct donations to candidates that are regulated by federal authorities. A Koch Industries spokesman declined comment.
Under federal law, individuals may give no more than $1,000 per election to one candidate. But most advocacy organizations of the left and right, Triad included, say that because their "issue ads" do not directly call for a candidate's election or defeat, they do not need to disclose their contributors or comply with limits on donations.
Triad lawyer Mark Braden said, "You can most certainly make a very good argument that any monies spent in this process should be disclosed because it provides a more informed public discussion for everyone to know who pays for what." However, he said, it was "crystal clear . . . that's not what the present law is."
Triad and its affiliates counted many other conservative activists among their large donors. Bank records showed California developer Fred R. Sacher contributed $200,000 to Citizens for Reform and Citizens for the Republic Education Fund in 1996.
Sacher was a major supporter of the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s, donated nearly $200,000 to GOPAC, a political action committee formerly run by House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), and in 1995 funded a media campaign to help promote Gingrich's Contract With America. Sacher could not be reached at his Grass Valley, Calif. home.
Another Triad patron was Minnesota entrepreneur Robert Cummins, who donated $100,000 to Citizens for the Republic Education Fund. Cummins. He is chairman of the Eden Prairie, Minn.-based Fargo Electronics and served as president of the Freedom Club, a conservative businessmen's group whose PAC gave $186,000 to Republican candidates in 1996. Cummins did not return phone calls to his office.
Cracker Barrel Old Country Store gave $8,000 to Triad and $10,000 to Citizens for Reform, documents show. Cracker Barrel founder Don Evins was a charter member of GOPAC, and the company gave $5,000 to the Kennesaw State College Foundation for the course taught by Gingrich. He also has given $5,000 to Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) over the years.
Foster and Lynette Friess gave $25,000 to Citizens for Reform. Foster Friess, a Jackson, Wyo., investor, is another GOP stalwart, contributing more than $260,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and a New York committee with ties to Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato (R-N.Y.).
Bruce D. Benson, a former Colorado GOP chairman and gubernatorial candidate, also gave $25,000 to Citizens for Reform, according to the documents. His company, Benson Mineral Group, gave GOPAC $42,000, donated at least $3.4 million to his campaign and has given heavily to GOP committees and candidates.
The only company on the list not usually identified with the GOP was Walt Disney Company, which gave $10,000 to Citizens for Reform. Disney director of corporate affairs Jeffrey Schwartz said Citizens was "represented to us as a good government committee" engaging in "issue advocacy, talking about the economy and environment and some things that we felt we wanted to support." He said he did not recall who approached Disney for the donation. "This is no different than us giving to any other charitable organization," he said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post