The circumstances surrounding the financial affairs of Sen. Donald Stewart (D-Ala.) have grown even murkier since my first reports on them.
Stewart is an amiable, ingratiating, back-bench senator who is deeply in hock. The folks who voted for him will tell you he's "a good ol' boy." It is a term of affection and respect.
He arrived in the Senate full of repentance. Having accepted $164,000 from special interests, he pledged that he would not touch another penny of tainted money. He then set about colecting another $160,000 from 82 political action committees, which distribute campaign funds for the special interests.
In response to my column on Stewart's convoluted finances, he issued an indignant denial. He focused on an illegal campaign donation of $22,000 from a convicted con man named James Dennis.
The senator stoutly denied any wrongdoing, claiming he returned the $22,000 to Dennis when he learned the donations were from corporate funds and therefore illegal. He assured my associate Tony Capaccio that he'd document his denials, then refused to show us the promised documents.
Stewart did show to two home-state reporters documents that he insists clear his name. In the interests of fairness, I'll list Stewart's claims of innocence, though his evidence is hardly ironclad.
To prove that he gave Dennis a refund for the $22,000, Stewart produced a canceled check dated May 11, 1979. The check is endorsed "For deposit only." The sticky part is that on the same day the refund check was sent to Dennis, Stewart loaned his own campaign $22,000. Where did he get the money? As I reported earlier, the FBI is investigating the possibility that Dennis deposited the check and then slipped the $22,000 in cash back to Stewart -- a possibility that's not ruled out by the "For deposit only" endorsement.
To explain the source of his $22,000 loan to his campaign fund, Stewart produced an affidavit from an Anniston, Ala., banker last month attesting that Stewart borrowed that amount on May 11, 1979 -- the same day Dennis deposited his refund check from Stewart. The problem here is that the loan from the Anniston bank was not reported by Stewart in his Federal Election Commission report at the time, or later in his 1979 Senate financial disclosure form.
To refute my report that an eyewitnes swore he had seen Stewart accept $1,000 in cash from Dennis in early 1978, the senator produced a cashier's check for $1,000 dated Jan. 27, 1978, and signed by Dennis. Underneath Dennis' name is a handwritten notation that the contribution was from his wife, Melissa. Yet she denies ever having authorized a contribution. Further confusing things, Dennis has told federal authorities he made two separate $1,000 contributions at that time under his wife's name. Yet only one Melissa Dennis donation was shown in Stewart's FEC filings. This leaves on $1,000 check unaccounted for and both denied by the supposed donor.
To explain why he had not returned $1,150 in corporte funds that Dennis donated to his campaign -- in violation of federal law -- Stewart said the FEC had not told him to. While that is technically true, the FEC's general counsel reported last August that "all contributions" by Dennis were from corporate funds. That made them illegal.