Published on Wednesday, August 2, 2000 in the New York Times
The Few, the Rich, the Rewarded Donate the Bulk of G.O.P. Gifts
by Don Van Natta Jr and John M Broder
 

PHILADELPHIA - Republican officials insist that their financial base is primarily small donors, but the party has received more than $90 million from a relatively small pool of wealthy individuals and corporations, some of whom have shielded their generosity from public view.

An elite cadre of 739 contributors, writing larger checks than in the past, has provided two-thirds of the party's $137 million in so-called soft money, the unrestricted party gifts. Some donors have been directed by party officials to make their gifts in ways that disguise their identity and the degree of their largess, according to a top Republican fund-raiser.

The party's platinum-level sponsors are the Republican Regents, a group of 139 people and corporations that party officials say have each given at least $250,000 in soft money since January 1999. Two-thirds of the Regents are individuals, the rest are corporations. According to Federal Election Commission records, the select membership includes Lawrence Kadish, a New York real estate developer; Kenneth W. Lay, the chairman of Enron Corporation; Jerrold Perenchio, the chairman of the Univision television network; and Alex Spanos, a developer and investor based in Stockton, Calif.

But Federal Election Commission records show only 54 corporations and individuals as having given the large donations to the party because some donors have split them into smaller checks, at the suggestion of party officials. That effectively makes the donors' contribution totals harder to trace.

Some donors have also written checks to state party committees, whose records are not filed with the Federal Election Commission and are hard to obtain. Several party fund-raisers acknowledged that some donors have been told by finance officials to make contributions in the name of more obscure corporate subsidiaries that cannot always be easily linked to individuals.

Bill Pascoe, the Republican Party press secretary, said he was not aware of a deliberate plan to direct large contributors to send checks to state party committees as a way of disguising the size of their gifts.

But fund-raisers said big-dollar donors were willing to write numerous checks to different party committees to try to preserve their privacy. Some have even asked for suggestions from party officials for ways to disguise their contribution levels.

"It's broken up," said a longtime Republican fund-raiser who declined to be named. "A man gives some, a spouse gives, an investment company gives, a subsidiary gives. People want anonymity. The party doesn't care; they're getting their money."

Behind closed doors here this week, the Regents are getting suitably royal treatment.

At 4 p.m. on Monday, Tiffany & Company closed early so it could hold a private reception for 200 Regents and their spouses. They sipped soup from mock Fabergé eggs as a string quartet played. Joan Specter, the wife of Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, designed the table arrangements, which included rare orange Gerber daisies and matching roses. Each Regent was given a trademark blue Tiffany box containing a crystal bowl, inscribed with George W. Bush's signature.

Some Regents played golf this morning with Republican elected officials and former cabinet members at the White Marsh Valley Country Club in Lafayette Hills, Pa.

These events have been strictly off limits to reporters, and credentials are carefully checked at the door. Several Regents asked the Republican National Committee to send extra party workers to guard their events from the media. (Party officials refused, suggesting the club hire its own security guards.)

Party officials declined to disclose the Regents' membership list or a complete convention agenda, but The New York Times obtained a carefully guarded list of the Regents' Philadelphia itinerary from a member. On the calendar, the events are listed "REGENTS ONLY."

In previous years, the donor elite was Team 100, a group of $100,000 contributors that began in 1988 to help elect President George Bush. The club, now dedicated to the election of his son George W., the governor of Texas, has grown to 600 members and accounts for more than $60 million of the party's $137 million in soft money. In Philadelphia, some Team 100 members have complained that their events are too crowded. One Regent crowed that Team 100 members were packed like sardines in their party suite, while the $250,000 club members had "room to stretch our legs."

"You pay a little more, you get a little more," Mel Sembler, finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, said the other day.

Party officials said that while they were grateful for the support of big donors, the core of the party was its 600,000 small contributors, whose average donation is $99.63, they said.

"We are the party of small donors who represent grass-roots America," said Jim Nicholson, the party chairman. "We're pleased with the outpouring of support we've seen in recent weeks, particularly since Governor Bush announced his selection of Dick Cheney."

Some of the party's biggest donors have also written large checks to state Republican Party chapters. For example, 17 top donors to the national party also appear as donors to the Indiana party, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Sam Fox, the chairman of the Harbour Group, a Missouri manufacturing company, and the party's largest individual donor, is credited in state records with having given the Indiana party $275,000. But Mr. Fox said in an interview today that he had not written a check to the state party. A Republican National Committee official said he could not explain the discrepancy.

The institute found that 10 top national party contributors also gave a total of $367,000 to the New York party. A fund-raiser said that contributors were given credit for contributions to state parties when determining their qualifications for the Regents and Team 100 clubs.

Campaign finance experts criticized the Republican Party today for what they said appeared to be efforts to hide large contributions.

"This is an extraordinary development," said Fred Wertheimer, an advocate of revisions in federal campaign finance law and the president of Democracy 21, a group that works toward that end. "These efforts to raise soft money secretly are an outrageous evasion of disclosure laws. Large soft-money contributions are disappearing underground."

Since March 1999, Governor Bush has raised $93.2 million in checks of $1,000 or less, much of it raised by a network of fund-raisers called the Pioneers. He has promptly listed his donors and the amounts they have contributed on his Web site.

"I have always supported rapid public disclosure of campaign contributions as a healthy campaign finance reform," Mr. Bush said in September.

Mr. Sembler, a Florida shopping center magnate and former ambassador to Australia, created the Regents last year, coining the name.

"I thought it had a lofty sound to it," Mr. Sembler said in an interview earlier this year. But some Republicans do not like the name, saying it hardly hides the fact that a small donor group gets royal treatment from the party. This week's highlight event is a "Regents only" reception that precedes Wednesday's Republican gala lunch to be held at the Philadelphia Marriott. The Regents will get to meet privately with Governor Bush and his wife, Laura; Mr. Cheney; and Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida.

When asked if he would allow a reporter to attend a Regents event, Mr. Sembler laughed. "Write me a $250,000 check," he said, "and I'll open the door for you."

Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company

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