Candidates’ Trail of Money

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Today we continue with our look at how corporate money has been injected into the presidential campaign, and at the role of corporate-sponsored non-profits and think tanks in the electoral process. This past Saturday’s Washington Post carried an article about the group Citizens for a Sound Economy, one of the many non-profits that takes millions of dollars from corporations and that uses that money to influence public opinion. Unlike others, CSE refuses to reveal its source of funding. However, the Post recently was able to get documents showing that the CSE gets millions of dollars from corporations like Exxon and Phillip Morris. The CSE sent representatives to New Hampshire outfitted as citizen-activists, who supported many of George W. Bush’s economic proposals. [includes rush transcript]

These non-profits are also playing a large role in shaping public opinion using what are known as “issue ads”–TV and radio commercials advocating for a particular policy, such as tax cuts, school vouchers or restricting abortion. Experts say that many of these groups, which are often also supported by political parties and wealthy individuals trying to find loopholes around individual donor limits, are injecting themselves into the presidential campaign early and could play a major role in its outcome.


  • Peter Eisner, Center for Public Integrity. Call: 202.466.1300.
  • Andrew Wheat, Texans for Public Justice, an organization that just put out a report on Bush’s campaign funds called “The Governor’s Gusher.” Call: 512.472.9770.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: John McCain and George W. Bush have taken their battle for the Republican presidential nomination to South Carolina, where McCain is wooing reformers, and Texas Governor Bush is courting conservatives.

McCain is trying turn his New Hampshire landslide into the cash necessary to keep his presidential campaign going. His campaign’s website took in $500,000 in contributions within hours of McCain’s victory over Texas Governor George Bush in Tuesday’s Republican primary in New Hampshire.

National Finance Chair, Herb Allison, huddled yesterday with fundraisers who had come to New Hampshire for the primary and held a conference call with others in their home states.

But George W. Bush is certainly not wanting in cash. He has been raising, to say the least, a tremendous amount of money. In fact, just after last March, when he put out his one-page letter announcing the formation of the Bush Presidential Exploratory Committee, within a month he had collected an astonishing $7.6 million, half of the first flurry of checks coming from Texans, but also thousands of checks signed by longtime supporters and old friends of his dad, the former President George Bush. Governor Bush’s vast nationwide network of fundraisers will soon begin actively raising the huge unlimited political contributions known as soft money. But Bush himself has already begun to quietly raise soft money for Republican state party committees.

And today we’re joined by two guests we had on yesterday to continue this conversation about the money. Andrew Wheat is with us. He is research director of Texans for Public Justice, an organization that just put out a report on Bush’s campaign funds called “The Governor’s Gusher.” And Peter Eisner is with us. He is managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, which has put out an excellent report called “The Buying of the President 2000: The Authoritative Guide to the Big Money Interests Behind this Year’s Presidential Candidates.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!


PETER EISNER: Hi. How are you?

AMY GOODMAN: And I want to welcome you both back to Democracy Now! I want to begin with Peter Eisner of the Center for Public Integrity, and the whole issue of nonprofits that don’t exactly look like the nonprofits I usually think about and how they’re connecting to the campaigns.

PETER EISNER: Well, if we take a step back, what’s really going on is that political campaigns have found that they have to have novel new ways of getting around laws that say that there are limits on what corporations and groups can provide to individual candidates. So one of the means of subterfuge is to put together a nonprofit organization, which is really just a matter of filling out some forms and not really disclosing very much about who you are or what you represent, and then funneling millions of dollars, in many cases, into that nonprofit so that the nonprofit can perform tasks that a campaign really is doing.

The types of things that they can do are organize, put together ad campaigns on radio and television, do phone banks, and things like that. And it’s a very effective way to circumvent the hard money limits on each political candidate. And you find, across the spectrum, that dirty tricks and all different types of operations can be run, as long as, in legal interpretations, which are probably dubious, these organizations don’t specifically say: vote for such-and-such or vote against such-and-such. But it can get pretty down and dirty anyway.

AMY GOODMAN: Give some examples.

PETER EISNER: Well, for instance, a most recent example was an organization called Hands Across America, which first surfaced in New Jersey when Bill Bradley was running for re-election as senator against Christine Whitman. There was concern about Bradley’s position on taxes, and this group Hands Across America, which was largely funded by Republicans, set up a massive campaign against him that almost succeeded in throwing him out of the Senate.

The group is basically defunct, but the name has resurged recently in New Hampshire, going against Bradley, lashing out against him on his policies and not really saying who they are or what they are, and we find out that it’s really, once again, based in New Jersey, has murky funding. The head of it is an admitted criminal who spent some time in jail, I think, for cocaine smuggling, or charged with that, and —

AMY GOODMAN: Who’s that?

PETER EISNER: Stop me there. I don’t have the file on me.


PETER EISNER: You probably have it.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, are you saying it’s a Republican?

PETER EISNER: Yeah. Republicans putting together money to stop Bradley that still have a vendetta against him from New Jersey, and, really, when you see Hands Across America, it sounds like people with an interest in certain values and certain positions. But behind that is a nonprofit with money pouring in from Republican leaders in New Jersey that want to break the back of the Bradley campaign.

That’s not the only case. It runs the gamut. One of the most popular things to do is for one of the Democrat or Republican victory committees to put together a nonprofit and then, say, form an organization called Senior Citizens Against Higher Taxes, and then to put very sympathetic-looking people on television who say, “Well, I’m really worried about my Social Security checks. I just don’t know what’s going to happen. What’s wrong with Congress anyway?” And then you see a coffee klatch of people worrying about what’s going to happen if things go the way they’re going. That really could end up being a conservative policy group that’s trying to instill fear among senior citizens that maybe the Democrats aren’t such a good bet.

And there’s really no way to know very easily. Eventually reporters can dig into the nonprofit records, find out who’s the registered director of the nonprofit and eventually come up with some disclosure items. But it’s extremely murky, extremely circuitous, and it’s a wonderful way for parties to get around the idea that they have to be answerable for the positions and policy statements that they make.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about — there was a piece in the Washington Post just a few days ago: “Think Tanks: Corporations’ Quiet Weapon.” And it particularly focused on Citizens for a Sound Economy and also talks about the people who are fanning out, in this case, through New Hampshire, wearing T-shirts, or clad in signature red jackets emblazoned with the organization’s web address on the back.

PETER EISNER: Right. That’s just another one of the tactics that can be used. What we’re looking at — we’re going to be investigating what that group, as every other group. And on our website, people are going to be able to take a look — our website, by the way, — we’re going to be doing a systematic look at what we think will be a proliferation of such groups that spring up, have their own websites, have their own organization with very murky funding, and put together something that’s absolutely acceptable under the law, but questionable when you really look at the underpinnings of it, which is advocacy ads. People that are pushing positions that the parties and candidates have seen are hot buttons on getting sway votes to one side or the other, reaching out, could be out patrolling the streets with T-shirts, very much more often radio call-in shows, advertisements on radio and television, and such things. And there’s no identification of who the folks are.

One of my “favorites” is series of ads — and I say “favorites” in quotation marks — a series of ads that talks about what would have happened to the little girl whose mother almost decided to have an abortion, and here she is a happy, healthy child. Blah, blah, blah. At the end of the ad, you see the Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation. No one would know that that’s really run by Deborah DeMoss, the former chief of staff of Jesse Helms. In other words, an extreme conservative viewpoint being played in select markets for select political reasons that doesn’t name a candidate, but tries to soften up the position on a certain issue.

AMY GOODMAN: In the case of the CSE, the Citizens for a Sound Economy, the Washington Post points out: Along with earmark contributions from companies such as Exxon and Hertz, the organization received more than a million dollars from Philip Morris, at a time when Citizens for a Sound Economy was opposing cigarette taxes. Phone company U.S. West gave a million dollars to CSE pushing deregulation that would let U.S. West offer long-distance service.

And the Washington Post got a copy, a rare look at the think tank’s often hidden role as a weapon in modern corporate political arsenals, looking at the issue of these groups getting involved with these political campaigns.

As I said, we’re also joined on the phone by Andrew Wheat. Texans for Public Justice is his organization. He is research director there, which put out a report on Bush’s campaign funds called “The Governor’s Gusher.”

Andrew, can you share some more of these groups and where they’re getting their money from and how they’re operating in the campaign?

ANDREW WHEAT: Yeah. Well, one such group that’s operated in this current campaign is a group that’s called the Republican Leadership Council. And the Republican Leadership Council is getting its money from the very same people that are funding Bush’s campaign, some wealthy donors. And there’s an enormous crossover between the Republican Leadership Council and Bush’s own donors.

And they’ve put out an attack ad against Steve Forbes back in November that was one of the more unusual attack ads I’ve ever seen, in the extent to which it was brazenly hypocritical. The Republican Leadership Council put out an attack ad in November attacking the Forbes campaign for any attack ads that it might run in the future. So the nature of the attack was that he was subject — to watch out, this guy’s going to put out an attack ad. Yet this message is coming through an attack ad itself. So it was jujitsu political advertising. A voice comes on the air in the ad and says, “Now, I see, you just might start in again with those negative ads. Somebody needs to tell Steve Forbes that if he doesn’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

This actually was the subject of a complaint that Forbes filed with the Federal Election Commission, basically arguing that the funding for the Republican Leadership Council was coming from the same sources that Bush was getting his funding and that it was basically a front group for the Bush campaign.

The Republican Leadership Council gets its money from some large donors, who I think are frankly embarrassed by the right wing of their party, the anti-abortion zealots, the people that are sort of the religious wingnuts of the party. These people want to take back the White House, they want to take back Congress, and they think the way to do that is to have a more centrist Republican Party. And they’re trying to get the Steve Forbes types, the Gary Bauers, out of the picture. And this is their way of doing it in the most recent ads that we’ve seen.

On the board of this particular group are a number of Bush’s so-called Pioneers. These are the people that are raising a hundred thousand dollars a piece for the Bush campaign. So far, the Bush campaign has disclosed the names of about 177 Pioneers who have basically accomplished the mission. They have delivered the hundred thousand dollars, which, due to federal funding limits, they have to get — basically, they have to contact a hundred people and get each of them to give a thousand dollars, which is the individual limit. There are, however, said to be more than 400 of these Pioneers, who, if they all succeed in their mission, will deliver $40 million, at least, to the Bush campaign. This a level of fundraising we’ve never seen before. And, basically, the Pioneer structure, like the nonprofits that do attack ads, like soft money, is a way to wiggle around federal limits, which, of course, the Supreme Court just recently upheld again and said limits are legal, they’re not a violation of our First Amendment rights.

But there are a lot of big donors who want to get around these limits and want to keep buying and peddling influence after they’ve reached the limit. And there was an organization set up some years back in Virginia called Triad Management. And it was basically a boutique set up for very wealthy donors who had very strong political interests and wanted to keep on giving after they had maxed out on their limits. So what Triad would do would be set up some of these nonprofits and funnel this money from wealthy donors through themselves to the nonprofits and do attack ads.

Some of the big money for that operation was coming from the Koch brothers, spelled K-O-C-H, out of Wichita, Kansas, David and Charles Koch, who gave $25,000 to Bush’s gubernatorial races down here in Texas. Kochs own Koch Industries, one of the largest privately held companies in the United States, an oil company, and have had a variety of pollution complaints and lawsuits, including here in Texas. They settled a big $10 million lawsuit filed by fisherman in the Nueces Bay, down near Corpus Christi, back in 1998. They recently settled a large case with the State of Texas and a number of other states in the Southwest for pipeline leaks all over the Southwest that polluted the land and water.

So the Koch brothers were moving quite a bit of money through Triad, as was another individual who might be the kind of person that the Republican Leadership Council is concerned about, who also happens to be a big Bush donor. His name is James Leininger. Leininger is a physician out of San Antonio who is an entrepreneur, got into making oscillating hospital beds, of all things, that are designed to prevent bedsores, very expensive, high-tech beds, which, as it turns out, triggered a number of lawsuits themselves by patients and nurses who said the beds dropped and crushed them or sprayed them with silicone. This experience got James Leininger extremely interested in the tort reform issue, which seeks to make it harder for communities, workers, to file lawsuits against large corporations.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Andrew Wheat, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Texans for Public Justice — how can people find out more about it?

ANDREW WHEAT: On the internet, the easiest way, TPJ, as in Texas for Public Justice.

AMY GOODMAN: And Peter Eisner, Center for Public Integrity. That is, based in Washington, D.C. And I want to thank you both for being with us.

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