Published on Thursday, March 30, 2000 in the Washington Post
GOP Attorneys Generals Solicit Large Contributions From Corporations That Are Embroiled In Lawsuits
by George Lardner Jr. and Susan Schmidt
 
Republican state attorneys general are soliciting large contributions from corporations that are embroiled in--or are seeking to avert--lawsuits by states.

The Republican Attorneys General Association expects to collect $550,000--in chunks of $5,000 and up--from various companies gathered in Austin for a two-day session beginning today. The meeting features a "political briefing" Friday morning by Karl Rove, Texas Gov. George W. Bush's chief political strategist.

Membership in RAGA costs anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000, with increasing levels of access to the attorneys general depending on the donation. Microsoft Corp., which is being sued by 19 states that have joined a Justice Department antitrust lawsuit, contributed $10,000 last year, according to company spokesman Rick Miller. Telecommunications giant SBC Communications Inc., whose acquisition of Ameritech Corp. was facing review by state officials, says it contributed $35,000.

Officials of the Republican National Committee said RAGA raised $100,000 last year, but they declined to identify where the money came from. The donations are used for state attorney general races.

However, there is no way of knowing which companies have contributed to RAGA or how much. Contributions solicited by the group go into the general "soft money" account of the RNC and are reported in the RNC's monthly filings with the Federal Election Commission. "We disclose every cent we raise," said RNC spokesman Mike Collins.

Insurance company Aetna gave $10,000 to the RNC's soft money account last July 26, around the time of RAGA's first fund-raising drive, but Collins declined to say whether that was for a RAGA membership. Aetna U.S. Healthcare was one of six managed-care organizations accused of HMO fraud by Texas Attorney General Dan Morales, a Democrat, in 1998 just before he left office. The litigation has been moving slowly under Morales's Republican successor, John Cornyn, host of this week's RAGA conference.

Critics of the group say they are troubled by such spotty disclosure and by the use of state law enforcement officials as fund-raisers for the GOP. Several present and past attorneys general, Republican and Democrat, complain that RAGA puts attorneys general in the position of asking for money from potential or even actual defendants.

"I think this erodes every attorney general," said former Massachusetts attorney general Scott Harshbarger, a Democrat who is now president of Common Cause. "If you don't prosecute a case against someone when people think you should, or defend someone when people think you shouldn't, that's your job. But once somebody thinks one of us is doing that for political reasons, it affects us all."

RAGA's leaders reject charges that the group's solicitations present a conflict of interest.

"I am proud to support [RAGA], and it does not create a conflict of interest," said Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor, who founded the group last year. Cornyn said it was "outrageous" to suggest he would be influenced by contributions to RAGA. "As attorney general, I will always take action against those who have broken the law," he said in a statement. "No exceptions. No excuses."

In most states, the job of attorney general is an elected, partisan position, and those seeking the post raise money just as other politicians do. But while the tab for most attorney general races is fairly small, RAGA represents an effort--permitted under federal election law--to pump far larger sums into targeted races.

So far, RAGA has enlisted seven of the 15 Republican attorneys general in the nation, and some have told colleagues they joined reluctantly, urged by GOP officials in their states. Besides Pryor and Cornyn, attorneys general in Delaware, Nebraska, South Carolina, Virginia and Wyoming have signed up.

Asked why he did not join the group, Pennsylvania Attorney General Mike Fisher said, "I'm a Republican and I try to keep politics out of my business as attorney general."

"We're a family, and families can disagree," Grant Woods, former Republican attorney general of Arizona, told the National Association of Attorneys General during a discussion about RAGA at its spring meeting here last week. "But don't do this."

Harshbarger pointed out that other Democratic attorneys general had in the past resisted efforts by the Democratic National Committee to organize for fund-raising purposes.

"This is absolutely an effort by people with special interests to stop attorneys general from pursuing their traditional role as protectors of the public interest, not special interests," Harshbarger said.

One of RAGA's founding members and its first chairman, South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon, had joined the Microsoft lawsuit but dropped out in December 1998, citing changes in the industry. A few months earlier, Microsoft had given $20,000 to the South Carolina GOP, one of the largest gifts in the state party's history.

RAGA is an outgrowth of the increased activism of states and their attorneys general in recent years. A number of states have banded together in lawsuits against such companies as cigarette makers and car manufacturers. The group is in part a backlash against activist attorneys general who have teamed up against big business on issues from false advertising by carmakers to price-fixing in the women's shoe industry.

RAGA was conceived by Alabama's Pryor, who said he was alarmed by the dwindling number of Republican attorneys general and the public-private lawyer alliance in the tobacco litigation. He said he began discussions with colleagues, including Condon and Cornyn, about how to elect "conservative, crime-fighting attorneys general in other states."

They joined forces with the RNC, and RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson announced RAGA's formation in June 1999. Nicholson called it "a tremendous opportunity" for the GOP because a large number of attorney general seats up for election in 1999 and 2000 were held by Democrats. The group later said it would not go after incumbent Democrats but would help Republicans seeking reelection or running for open seats.

The attorneys general who formed the new organization and supporters in the business community say what alarms them most is the prospect of more alliances between attorneys general and plaintiff's lawyers that can cost billions, including huge contingency fees such as those awarded to the trial lawyers in the tobacco litigation.

James Wootton, executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform, said the $246 billion tobacco settlement has opened the door to similar arrangements between private lawyers and state officials considering claims against gunmakers and manufacturers of lead-based paint.

RAGA's Austin meeting is closed to the public, but an invitation described it as an opportunity for business executives to talk with attorneys general about how to preserve "conservative principles in the political marketplace."

"I encourage you to round up your clients and come see what RAGA is all about," Cornyn wrote in a January letter to Austin lawyer Hector DeLeon.

A panel on high technology and telecommunications features industry representatives and attorneys general discussing "free enterprise and the proper balance of government regulation" and "timely issues such as antitrust, interstate commerce, Internet gambling . . ."

A "consumer protection" panel discussion is titled "The Business Community & Attorneys General: Working Together to Protect Communities & Consumers."

Conference participants had been scheduled to attend a welcoming reception at the governor's mansion, but the site was changed last week after media inquiries. Mansion staffers said the RAGA reservation was canceled the same day Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer was asked about it. RAGA Executive Director Ben DePuy said the shift was made because "with 175 people coming, we needed a larger venue." He estimated that 70 percent of the participants would be RAGA members and said that others could attend for a $275 registration fee.

The conference will wind up with a choice of golf, tennis, spa relaxation or an afternoon of skeet and trap shooting sponsored by the National Rifle Association.

Staff writer James V. Grimaldi, researcher Lynn Davis and database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

2000 The Washington Post Company

###