Bill Clinton was in the White House, and Eli Lilly and Co. executives were worried. After receiving publicity for giving tens of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns, they decided they needed to cozy up to Democrats, fast.
"Dems are upset," an executive scribbled in an Aug. 20, 1996, note. "[If] White House stays Dem we are in trouble."
So, after consulting with the administration, the Eli Lilly official wrote this recommendation to colleagues: "Jay has talked to the White House and we can get back into this by giving $50[,000]-100,000 to the [Democratic National Committee] -- says they would be pleased with this."
These internal memos -- with names and dates sometimes deleted -- are among the piles of documents unearthed in the ongoing lawsuit over the nation's campaign finance law, widely known as McCain-Feingold because its chief sponsors were Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell Feingold (D-Wis.). These revelations are hardly the kind that get people booted from office or sent to jail. But the documents, many of which were subpoenaed over the past year and made public for the first time this month, provide an unusually detailed look at how the Washington money culture operates.
In them, political operatives privately worried that their political attack ads might skirt the edge of legality. Senators shamelessly courted campaign contributors. And corporate executives plotted how to pursue their legislative goals by answering the parties' never-ending call for campaign funds.
U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly used dozens of such documents in her 706-page opinion supporting most elements of the McCain-Feingold law, which took effect in November. She was part of a three-judge panel that struck down some elements of the law and upheld others. The Supreme Court will be the final arbiter.
Kollar-Kotelly outlined how, over the past several years, both parties poured unlimited contributions from individuals, business and labor -- known as "soft money" -- into issue ads that either boosted or damaged the political fortunes of candidates. Before McCain-Feingold took effect, such ads were permitted at any time, so long as they did not explicitly call for someone's election or defeat.
In one document, a Republican National Committee (RNC) official wrote that a glowing ad about 1996 GOP presidential nominee Robert J. Dole's biography may be stretching campaign finance rules. Campaign research "strongly suggests that this spot needs to run," the official wrote. "Making this spot pass the issue advocacy test may take some doing."
State political parties ostensibly were responsible for creating such ads. But national Democratic officials testified as part of the suit that they carefully monitored the use of the soft money they sent to state parties. Jim Jordan, who was executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 2002, testified that his committee "does not permit issue advocacy communications it supports to be recorded or produced until they have been approved by DSCC counsel and DSCC senior employees."
National party officials also gave specific directions to wealthy donors willing to contribute soft money to state parties. Billionaire Steve Kirsch, who funneled $2.1 million to state Democratic parties just before the 2000 presidential election, testified that Democrats in Washington played "an important role" in determining how he distributed those funds.
"They said, essentially, if you want to help us out with the presidential election, these particular state parties are hurting, they need money for get-out-the-vote and other last minute campaign activities," Kirsch said under oath.
Other documents and testimony provide unflattering portraits of some lawmakers and corporate executives who jockeyed for money and influence, respectively.
Former senator Paul Simon (D-Ill.) testified that fellow senators rebuffed him in 1995 when he suggested they block an effort by Federal Express -- a major campaign contributor -- to have truck drivers covered by the federal Railway Act instead of the National Labor Relations Act. According to Simon, a colleague said: "I'm tired of Paul always talking about special interests. We've got to pay attention to who is buttering our bread." Simon added: "I will never forget that."
Elsewhere, a March 1999 memo from a lobbyist for an unidentified Fortune 100 company explained to his superiors why they should make large soft money donations to both major parties. "As the parties compete more vigorously for soft money dollars, the number and quality of events for interacting with both the [congressional] leadership and rank-and-file Members has greatly increased," the lobbyist wrote. He added that both Democrats and Republicans were particularly focused on the House redistricting process that follows each census. "Redistricting is a key, once-in-a-decade effort that both parties have very high on their priority lists. Given the priority of the redistricting efforts, relatively small money contributions in this area could result in disproportionate benefits."
A sizable portion of Kollar-Kotelly's opinion focused on four-term Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who once headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee and emerged as the most outspoken opponent of McCain-Feingold. In a handwritten note to a supporter, for example, McConnell wrote: "Your commitment for $2,000 each from you and your lady will be very helpful in my reelection next year. Thanks again and I look forward to hearing from you soon. Mitch."
Donors appeared eager to oblige McConnell. Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturing Association executive Barry Caldwell, for example, briefed association President Alan F. Holmer about an upcoming meeting with the senator. His memo said the meeting's objectives included "apprising him of industry's concern with attention on pharmaceutical costs and efforts by Democrats to demagogue the issue at Republican expense," and "expressing PhRMA's willingness to be a resource, substantively and politically, to assist in maintaining a Republican majority [in Congress] in 2000."
McConnell declined to comment on the documents connected to the lawsuit.
While RNC officials testified that they had no formal policy of connecting donors with lawmakers, several documents suggest that they tried to do so. On Oct. 27, 1995, then-RNC Chairman Haley Barbour sent a letter to Dole, who was the Senate majority leader, asking him to meet with then-Pfizer chief executive William C. Steere Jr. The pharmaceutical company had given $100,000 to the GOP committee.
"He is extremely loyal and generous," Barbour wrote of Steere. "He is also not longwinded. I'd appreciate if you'd see Bill."
Barbour's nephew, Henry, who directed the committee's program for donors who gave $100,000, wrote Kim White of the money management firm Moore Capital Management in 1995 to check on whether her firm had connected with Dole and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.).
"Let me know how the Dole and Gingrich contacts are working -- or if there are some others you want to hook up with," he wrote.
Republicans were not alone in parlaying connections with their senior officials into campaign dollars. Democrats did the same with Clinton. In a "call sheet" for then-DNC Chairman Donald Fowler, for example, a committee official suggested that Fowler ask veteran contributor Denise Rich to give $80,000, on top of the $20,000 she had already contributed, "for lunch with Potus on Oct. 27th." POTUS is an abbreviation for president of the United States.
And DNC staffers cited Clinton's support for oil drilling in some areas when they angled for industry dollars. Fowler received a phone-call sheet on Nov. 14, 1995, suggesting that he seek money from either Dennis R. Hendrix or George L. Mazanec -- then the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of Panhandle Eastern Corp. "Mazanec was at the meeting with President Clinton dealing with deep water drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico," the note said. "The Clinton Administration was instrumental in getting this issue through Congress."
Four days earlier, Fowler received a similar call sheet suggesting he get $35,000 from Jim Groninger, a senior lobbyist for Texaco. "The President helped out the Oil Industry by supporting them on drilling issues in the Gulf of Mexico," DNC staffer David Dunphy wrote. "The bill passed the House on Tuesday."
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