Polls assessing the popularity of Iran-contra figure Oliver L. North were paid for by a political action committee headed by North called V-PAC. An article yesterday misidentified the group that had conducted the polls. (Published 3/23/93)

Oliver L. North, the Iran-contra figure and likely U.S. Senate candidate in Virginia, has raised more than $20 million for political and personal organizations he controls during the last five years, building a nationwide base of tens of thousands of donors he plans to call on if he runs for office.

According to financial statements filed with New York state, North, a Republican, used a direct-mail campaign to collect more than $13 million for his personal legal defense fund and about $7 million for a political group he heads, the Freedom Alliance. Federal records show he also raised more than $540,000 last year through a political action committee he heads called V-PAC. Much of the money already has been spent.

Political analysts say North's fund-raising organization appears to be one of the nation's most formidable political money machines -- putting it in a class with the highly successful direct-mail operation of Sen. Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.). They say it immediately establishes North as a powerful contender if he seeks the Senate seat now held by Democrat Charles S. Robb next year.

"It is a stunning amount of money," said Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution. "This operation appears to be in a class that's matched only by Jesse Helms. It tells you that someone like Ollie North can mount a very serious campaign for the Senate."

North "has been fund-raising for a few years, and he's been quite successful at it," said Arthur Kropp, president of People for the American Way, a liberal group that tracks conservative direct-mail organizations. "He's clearly building a substantial base of support for something. A Senate race is logical."

The New York records give a more detailed picture of North's fund-raising activities after the Iran-contra scandal than had been available. But the records say little about who gave the money to North.

He declined a request for an interview last week about his fund-raising activities. But in a statement, North said, "I remain continually thankful to the American people for their generous support."

North's chief of staff, Mark Merritt, said he understands why some people would see the groups and their fund-raising as a prelude to a Senate campaign by North. Merritt said if North runs, he would be prepared to spend as much as $2 million to win the Republican nomination. "It would take that kind of financial firepower to fend off the ruthless negative attacks" that North would face, Merritt said.

Although North's groups cannot legally conduct a political campaign, both the Freedom Alliance and V-PAC have carried out activities that would help get a Senate bid off the ground. The Freedom Alliance has conducted polls to assess North's popularity, aides say, and V-PAC has contributed to Republican political candidates in Virginia. Those gifts, and appearances by North on behalf of the candidates, have built up considerable goodwill among GOP activists in Virginia, party regulars say.

Mailings by the groups also suggest issues that North might use in a Senate campaign: attacks on Congress as too liberal and opposition to feminism and gay rights, especially gay rights in the military. North was criticized last week for making a joke at the expense of homosexuals during a Fairfax County Republican dinner. He later apologized.

A retired Marine lieutenant colonel, North is one of at least four people seriously considering a bid for the Senate in Virginia next year. Robb has said he will seek a second term. Gov. L. Douglas Wilder has said he will decide by June whether to challenge Robb, his bitter rival, for their party's nomination. Jim Miller, a former Reagan administration budget director, has said he is a likely GOP candidate.

Analysts say the campaign probably will be one of the most contentious and high-profile in the nation. It also is likely to be expensive. Robb spent $3.1 million against weak opposition in 1988, but activists say the 1994 Senate campaign is likely to cost far more, perhaps as much as the 1989 race for governor. Wilder spent $7 million and won; Republican Marshall Coleman spent $11 million.

Financial disclosure records show that North has spent almost all the money he has raised, and federal law prevents him from applying any of it directly to a Senate campaign. But one of North's groups publishes a monthly newsletter that keeps him in touch with his contributors, and North's advisers say those people would form the backbone of fund-raising efforts for a campaign.

Merritt said the size of North's mailing list varies, but totals at least 65,000 people nationwide every month.

Several people who have given money to North organizations said in recent interviews that they would eagerly support him in a Senate race.

"I have come to believe he should get into politics," said Mildred Reeves, who is retired in Columbus, Ind. Reeves donated $1,000 to V-PAC in October and has given money to other North groups. "If the situation comes up, I'd do the same thing again," she said.

Reeves's name became public because federal law requires the reporting of donors who give $200 or more to political action committees. State laws covering his defense fund and the Freedom Alliance do not require release of donors' names and do not set limits on individual contributions. In federal elections, no person can give more than $2,000 to a candidate, and no political action committee can give more than $10,000.

Records show that the Freedom Alliance received at least one $50,000 gift, from an heir to the Heinz food fortune, Clifford Heinz, of Newport Beach, Calif. He could not be reached for comment through phone calls to his home.

North's aides would not release a list of his donors or say how many large donations he has received. Merritt said the average individual contribution to North's causes is about $25.

Political analysts and Democrats say North's fund-raising is likely to come under intense scrutiny if he runs for Senate.

"Any time you are raising large sums of money and the sources are invisible, somebody is going to ask hard questions," said Don Foley, executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. "I can't imagine that amount of money not becoming an issue."

North's first fund-raising organization, his legal defense fund, began filing detailed annual financial statements in New York state when it was organized in 1988. New York law requires all charitable organizations that solicit contributions there to make financial information public.

The organizers of North's legal defense fund, who said in legal documents establishing the fund that the names of donors "shall be kept confidential," objected to disclosing any information, and they argued that the fund should be exempt from New York laws. But state officials would not grant the fund an exception.

North has said the cost of mounting a legal defense during congressional inquiries and against criminal charges -- he was found guilty of lying to Congress, shredding government documents and taking an illegal gratuity, but the convictions were overturned -- was astronomical. The records bear that out.

According to financial statements, North paid the lawyers who defended him almost $5.4 million from 1988 through 1991. Aides to North said that the fund was liquidated last year and that additional expenditures were limited. The aides would not say what happened to any leftover money; that will become public this year when the fund files its 1992 report.

The statements also show that the defense fund spent more than $1 million on security services for North from 1988 through 1991. During that period, law enforcement officials said they had uncovered a terrorist plot to kill North. Legal documents establishing the legal defense fund specified that the proceeds could be used "to provide personal protection for the safety of {North} and his family," who live in Clarke County, west of Loudoun. Much of the money went to pay salaries and expenses for security guards, North aides said.

During the four years, the defense fund raised about $13.2 million. About $6.8 million was used to pay the cost of fund-raising and administration, with most of that amount spent to pay for direct-mail appeals. Direct-mail fund-raising is often expensive, and sources in the industry said North's costs are not excessive when compared with those of other political groups.

Little more than a year after North's defense fund began its solicitations, he established a permanent, nonprofit political organization, the Freedom Alliance, that would add to the mailing lists built by the original group. The links between the two groups and V-PAC are strong.

One man has held senior positions in all three: Edward J. Bronars, of Falls Church, a retired Marine three-star general who was once North's commanding officer. The organizations have offices next to North's private business, Guardian Technologies Inc., in a Loudoun County office building near Dulles International Airport. Guardian sells security devices, such as bulletproof vests.

The groups' mailings give a clear picture of North's staunchly conservative beliefs, and they suggest a direction that a North Senate campaign might take.

In 1990, as the Freedom Alliance was getting started, North sent out a letter that said he would take on "an increasingly imperial Congress, dominated by the far left and containing too many members mired in immoral personal behavior" and "an arrogant army of ultra-militant feminists, opposed to traditional family values."

The Freedom Alliance also has repeatedly attacked gay-rights groups, which the Alliance says pose a threat to the country's future. In a January mailing, the group questioned President Clinton's plans to allow gay people in the military, asking, "Who would have ever thought that radical homosexuals would . . . have so great an influence on critical presidential decisions?"

Late last year, a mailing asked supporters to help keep gay people out of the Boy Scouts. A headline in a recent newsletter characterized the Clinton era as "The Gay 90's."

North was one of several prominent Republicans who came under fire from civil rights groups last week for telling jokes at a Fairfax County GOP roast that stereotyped homosexuals. North quipped that he was able to get through the White House switchboard only after he disguised his voice with an exaggerated lisp.

Gay rights could emerge as a theme in the Senate campaign next year if Robb, the Democratic incumbent, wins his party's nomination. Robb has supported allowing gay people in the military, a position that has drawn criticism from Republicans and conservatives, including North.

The Freedom Alliance mailings have struck a chord with recipients, raising about $7 million from 1989 through 1991. The money has helped North take part in several causes: The group launched vigorous protests against Time Warner Inc. for releasing the rap song "Cop Killer" and distributed thousands of Christmas packages to U.S. troops in the Middle East during Operation Desert Storm.

But Kropp, of People for the American Way, said North's groups have had limited political impact because they have done relatively little grass-roots organizing or lobbying on Capitol Hill. The groups have concentrated, Kropp said, on activities that would set the stage for a campaign for office by North.

"This operation has been dedicated to polishing North's image," Kropp said. "From the kind of issues he's been addressing, I would conclude there is a political race in his future."

Staff researcher Mark Stencel contributed to this report.

Oliver North has raised more than $20 million in the last five years on behalf of political and personal organizations he controls, building a nationwide base of tens of thousands of contributors he could call on if he runs for U.S. Senate.

......... North Legal ... Freedom .... V-PAC ............ TOTAL

....... Defense Trust ... Alliance ... (Founded

...... (Founded 1988) ... (Founded .... 1992)

.......................... 1989)

1988 ..... $4,652,649 ...... -- ........... -- ....... $4,652,649

1989 ...... 6,487,517 .... $442,119 ...... -- ........ 6,929,636

1990 ........ 712,145 ... 3,795,892 ...... -- ........ 4,508,037

1991 ...... 1,387,108 ... 2,760,480 ...... -- ........ 4,147,588

1992 ........ N/A ......... N/A ....... 543,778 ....... 543,778

TOTAL ... $13,239,419 ... 6,998,491 ... 543,778 ... $20,781,688

Sources: New York State Secretary of State and Federal Election Commission