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Sen. Sam Brownback/WP
Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.)

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Funds Consultant Helped Senator Behind Scenes

By Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 12, 1997; Page A01

When Sam Brownback celebrated his election as a Republican senator from Kansas last year, he thanked the usual list of family, staff and supporters – except for one.

Unmentioned among his Kansas backers was a Washington consulting firm called Triad Management Services. But Brownback had ample reason to be grateful to Triad, which played a significant though invisible role in propelling him to office.

Perhaps most important was a last-minute issue advertising blitz sponsored by a mysterious organization that the Brownback campaign said it had no knowledge of, yet was actually a group run by Triad. The advertising, which came in the last two weeks of what had been a neck-and-neck race, totaled $410,000 – a significant sum in a campaign in which Brownback himself spent $2.2 million.

The ads, paid for by a nonprofit group called Citizens for the Republic Education Fund, lauded Brownback as a "conservative Republican tax-fighter" and labeled his opponent, stockbroker Jill Docking, an out-of-state liberal.

The advertising is only part of extensive behind-the-scenes help that Triad provided directly and indirectly to Brownback's campaign, according to evidence amassed in recent weeks by Democratic investigators for the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee. Triad, which bills itself as a contribution advisory service for conservative donors, steered contributors Brownback's way, helped him make fund-raising calls and recommended that its clients give money to political action committees that in turn contributed to Brownback's campaign. Brownback, for his part, shared his contributor list with Triad so it could prospect for clients.

Brownback, a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee, which has been investigating campaign fund-raising abuses, wouldn't agree to be interviewed about Triad. His spokesman and Triad's lawyer say there was nothing improper about the array of aid provided by the group. Triad's nonprofit arm claimed it was running only educational "issue ads," not political campaign commercials advocating Brownback's election, meaning that it was not required to disclose its donors or spending.

To others, however, the episode illustrates the gaping loopholes in federal election law that were exploited during the 1996 election. Triad was able to play an important but unseen role in a political system that is supposed to rely on public disclosure of donations and spending.

"The premise of the campaign finance law is that voters should know who is financing political activity," said Alan Baron, the Democratic chief counsel of the Senate investigating committee. "Therefore, regardless of the political views of the donor, any time large sums of money from undisclosed sources finance political campaigns, it undermines the federal election law as well as the democratic process in this country."

Docking, Brownback's Democratic opponent, said in an interview that the new evidence of Brownback's direct ties to Triad raises questions about his credibility in denying knowledge of the Citizens for the Republic Education Fund. "Over and over again he said he didn't have any idea where this was coming from . . . yet at the same time he was sitting down talking to them," Docking said. "I think his credibility is questionable here."

Brownback's relations with Triad apparently began in June 1996, when Triad consultant Carlos Rodriguez visited Brownback's headquarters to perform what Triad called a "political audit," a meeting with key campaign staff to determine whether the company should recommend a candidate to its clients.

Brownback, a freshman House member, was running in the GOP primary against incumbent Sheila Frahm, who had been appointed to take Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole's place when he resigned a month earlier. Frahm was viewed as an abortion rights moderate, and Rodriguez concluded in a memo: "This is perhaps one of the most, if not the most important races in the nation in regards to the conservative coalition. As such we must do everything in our power to ensure a Brownback victory in the primary."

The next month, in a fax alert to several hundred Triad clients, Triad president Carolyn S. Malenick called Brownback's Aug. 6 primary "a microcosm of the ideological battle to maintain the Republican Revolution. . . . The election of Brownback will send shock waves throughout the Republican National Convention scheduled one week later. Sheila Frahm must be defeated!"

Some Triad clients heeded that call for help, though neither Triad nor the Brownback campaign would say how many. But after his primary victory, Brownback hosted a thank-you breakfast attended by Triad clients and Triad officials at the San Diego convention. In her deposition by Senate investigators, Triad finance director Meredith O'Rourke estimated that about 25 Triad clients were present at the breakfast.

That wasn't the only aid Triad provided. O'Rourke also said she twice accompanied Brownback to Republican headquarters to help him as he dialed for dollars. "Sam needed help," said Brownback's spokesman, Bob Murray. "He was lousy at raising money by the phone . . . so they [Triad] suggested that Meredith go with him."

Corporations are not supposed to make political contributions, including providing their services free, but Triad lawyer Mark Braden – offering a different description of the event than Murray – said O'Rourke was acting on her own time. "My understanding of what happened is Meredith asked Carolyn [Malenick] whether she could go over and help Brownback dial for dollars and . . . Meredith agreed to do it on her own time."

In addition, Brownback's in-laws, John and Ruth Stauffer, after contributing the legal maximum to his campaign, donated $32,500 to seven conservative political action committees that were on Triad's recommended list. Within days, those PACs sent $30,170 in donations to the Brownback campaign. Both the Stauffers and the PACs have said that the Stauffers did not earmark the funds to go to the Brownback campaign, something that would have violated federal election law. In her deposition, O'Rourke said she knew the Stauffers but was stopped by Triad lawyer Braden from answering additional questions.

Then came the ads, $410,000 worth in a two-week period. Polls in October showed the Brownback-Docking race tight. In the end, Brownback won by a convincing 54 to 43 percent.

In trying to determine the source of the last-minute advertising barrage, the Senate committee has obtained bank records showing that $1.2 million of the $1.3 million spent by Citizens for the Republic Education Fund came from a single source, an entity called the Economic Education Trust.

Senate investigators believe, but can't definitively prove, that the Economic Education Trust is funded by Charles and David Koch, who have made billions in the oil business. The Koches and other employees of Wichita-based Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the country, separately contributed $31,650 to Brownback's Senate campaign. The Koches have refused to comment.

Brownback spokesman Murray said he didn't think the Citizens for the Republic ads played any role in that victory and said that in any case they were offset by other outside groups that did work on Docking's behalf. "The Democrats may believe this cost them the election," he said. "It just doesn't hold water."

Docking, who spent slightly more than $1 million on her campaign, sees it differently. "I thought it was devastating," she said. "You pour over $400,000 into one commercial and you're talking about a significant piece of my budget."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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