Two key campaign consultants for Virginia attorney general candidate Robert F. McDonnell established a nonprofit group five years ago that its director now says was used almost exclusively to secretly fund political efforts -- including one organized by indicted Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
McDonnell, a lawyer and state delegate from Virginia Beach, provided legal advice and his law firm did work for the nonprofit group, according to its former executive director, Robin Vanderwall. Vanderwall said he does not know whether McDonnell knew of the group's activities but said everything he did was at the direction of McDonnell's current political strategists.
Vanderwall also has ties to McDonnell: He ran the Republican's 1999 campaign for the General Assembly. Vanderwall is now serving a seven-year prison term after he was convicted of soliciting sex from a minor on the Internet. In telephone interviews and correspondence from state prison, Vanderwall said the nonprofit group, Faith and Family Alliance, was used as a pass-through to fund Abramoff's campaign against an Internet gambling ban and to attack U.S. House candidate Eric I. Cantor in his 2000 primary race.
Vanderwall said he was recruited in 2000 to run the Faith and Family Alliance by Tim Phillips and Phil Cox, whose consulting firm has been paid $460,000 this year by McDonnell's campaign for attorney general.
The firm, New Dominion Strategies, is a prominent political company that has consulted on races across Virginia. There is no evidence that Cox and Phillips have used tactics in McDonnell's campaigns that are similar to those involving the Faith and Family Alliance.
McDonnell said yesterday that his law firm was hired to file "routine" incorporation papers for Faith and Family with the state but that he was not connected to any of the group's activities.
"I had no information whatsoever about the operations of Faith and Family Alliance," McDonnell said. "I was never involved in any way in any of their activities."
McDonnell went on to say he is confident that the work of the consultants in his campaign has been done "in a professional and completely ethical manner."
Cox and Phillips did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Cox established Faith and Family Alliance in Virginia Beach as a nonfederal tax-exempt corporation under Section 527 of the U.S. tax code, records show. Vanderwall said Phillips and Cox approached him during a break at the Republican state convention in early June 2000 and asked him to run the corporation.
Since then, in one case, Faith and Family allegedly was used by Abramoff to funnel money to a campaign to defeat legislation to prohibit gambling over the Internet. Money was sent from a client of Abramoff's to Americans for Tax Reform, which kept a portion. The rest was routed to Faith and Family, records show. Vanderwall then made out a check for the identical amount and sent it to the political consulting firm where Phillips is vice president. That firm was founded by former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed, an Abramoff friend. The money was meant to attack conservative Republicans who backed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, a review of records shows.
Abramoff's work is under scrutiny as part of the federal investigation of his lobbying activities. Abramoff was indicted by a federal grand jury in Florida in August on charges of fraud involving a casino cruise company deal marred by a gangland-style murder. He has pleaded not guilty.
The other effort by Faith and Family involved mailers attacking Cantor, of Henrico County, who was engaged in a bitter GOP primary fight with state Sen. Stephen H. Martin of Chesterfield. The congressional seat was being vacated by Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Richmond).
Vanderwall said Cox called him and said a Richmond businessman wanted to pay for a negative campaign against Cantor. Cox said he could not have anything to do with the effort because of his role as Martin's campaign manager.
"My only task was to let this fellow [the donor] know we had the bank account set and we were ready to pay for the mailing," Vanderwall said.
Vanderwall said he did not remember the businessman's name and did not have access to Faith and Family's records in prison.
Vanderwall said when he took over Faith and Family that the incorporation papers were a mess. So he turned to McDonnell, whose campaign for delegate he had managed the year before. McDonnell said he referred Vanderwall to a colleague at his Virginia Beach law firm, Huff, Poole & Mahoney. Faith and Family's filing of notice as a 527 organization with the Internal Revenue Service lists Huff, Poole & Mahoney as the group's custodian of records.
On the board of Faith and Family with Vanderwall was Keith Polarek, the husband of Janet Polarek, McDonnell's campaign manager in his race for attorney general, according to state corporation records. Keith Polarek released a statement through McDonnell's campaign saying: "If there was anything being done that shouldn't have been, I didn't know it."
In June 2000, a series of four mailers began appearing in at least 40,000 voters' mailboxes attacking Cantor in his race against Martin. Phone calls also were made describing Martin as "the only Christian" in the race and mentioning that Cantor goes to a synagogue, but Cantor's campaign never determined who ran those attacks, an aide said.
Martin did not return calls. In 2000, he said he did not know about the mailings until they went out.
The effort almost worked. But Cantor, a former aide to Bliley, had the longtime congressman's endorsement and a lead in fundraising. He defeated Martin by 263 votes in the primary and handily won the general election.
Staff writer Maria Glod and staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.