Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - A new website launched Friday will track donations to President George Bush's reelection campaign that the creators of the site claim violate the "spirit" of campaign finance laws. Campaign finance law experts call the group's complaints "much ado about nothing."
Public Citizen, a liberal advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader, created WhiteHouseForSale.org to chronicle what Frank Clemente, director of the organization's Congress Watch division, called "the most sophisticated political fundraising machine that has ever existed in a U.S. presidential election."
"We're trying to see who's getting what for their money," Clemente said.
"We believe a lot of relief for regulated industry has been given under the Bush administration, there are lots of contracts that have been given out to contributors," he charged. "We know of lots of ambassadorships for 'financial angels' and that a lot of legislation for lobbyists in Washington has been on the Bush administration agenda."
In a conference call with reporters Friday, Clemente criticized Bush fundraisers for allegedly turning the presidential campaign into "a competition for money, not a competition for ideas.
"The president obviously has a fundraising operation that makes the Clinton's Lincoln bedroom and donor coffee klatches look like a bake sale," he said. "The money being raised is largely coming from a few zip codes in a few states."
Not so, according to Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney '04 reelection campaign.
"The fact of the matter is that the president's reelection campaign has received donations from over 84 percent of the counties in America," Ronayne said, "because he has supporters that want to express their appreciation for his leadership and compassionate conservative agenda."
Public Citizen complains of Bush campaign 'bundling,' admits it's legal
Sponsors of the new "Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act" sought to more strictly limit the amount any one person could contribute to any single federal candidate in primary and general election campaigns.
Though each individual is limited to giving a total of $2,000, nothing in the law prohibits a political supporter from soliciting the maximum donation from several other individuals on behalf of a candidate and then delivering those donors' individual checks to the campaign together in a "bundle."
The Bush-Cheney '04 reelection campaign has created two "bundling networks," including "Pioneers," volunteers who are able to solicit contributions in excess of $100,000, and "Rangers," those able to recruit contributions of more than $200,000.
Craig McDonald is the executive director of Texans for Public Justice, a state-level liberal advocacy group allied with Public Citizen in their criticism of the Bush campaign.
"The Pioneer Program, the most sophisticated [bundling program] we have seen in the history of politics to date, really sidesteps the spirit, if not the letter, of both the contribution limit laws and the disclosure laws," McDonald said.
But attorney and campaign finance law expert James Bopp of the Bopp, Coulson & Bostrom Law Firm told CNSNews.com that McDonald's complaints are "much ado about nothing."
"It does not violate the letter of the law and, of course, the law is what the letters say, it's not the 'spirit,'" Bopp explained. "There's no 'spirit' that you can violate. The law either says you can do it or you can't."
McDonald argues that the Bush political team is violating the "spirit" of campaign finance disclosure laws because it does not identify "conduits" - those "Pioneers" and "Rangers" who solicit bundled contributions - to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
"It's no secret that, when someone is a Pioneer, the Bush campaign is tracking their contributions, but the federal law says that no individual should get more than $2,000 worth of access, clout, recognition, whatever you want to call it, for giving to a federal candidate, McDonald argued, "and of course, the Pioneers are getting credited...with 50 to 100 times more than the legal limit."
Ronayne disputed the allegation.
"I entirely disagree with the premise," he said.
Public Citizen, in the documentation on its WhiteHouseForSale.org website, supports Ronayne's contention, describing bundling as "all perfectly legal."
"When a corporate executive or a lobbyist physically touches a bundled contribution and delivers the check to a campaign, the bundler as well as the original contributor must be publicly disclosed in the campaign's FEC reports," Public Citizen explains. "But if the bundler does not physically touch the checks, s/he need not be disclosed to the public as the conduit source of the contribution."
That is exactly the system the Bush campaign is utilizing for its bundled fundraising.
Supporters who are soliciting bundled funds are assigned a tracking number, which they in turn ask contributors to write on checks to the Bush campaign. Because the donor mails the check directly to the Bush campaign, the solicitor does not legally qualify as a "conduit," Bopp said, and need not be identified in FEC filings.
Group's admitted goal more than identifying 'conduits'
Public Citizen wants to do more than inform the public through the new website. The group wants to incite a hostile response to the Bush campaign's fundraising successes.
"The public, in our opinion, needs to be motivated and get angry about the role of special interests in Washington in general but, more importantly, behind the Bush administration," he said. "We need the public to demand that full public financing of presidential elections be put on the legislative agenda. We hope to demand that of all the presidential candidates running this year."
Candidates running in the Democrats' primaries for the 2004 presidential elections will receive $19 million of taxpayers' money to spend seeking their party's nomination.
Public Citizen estimates that President Bush, who has refused taxpayer funding for the primary season, will raise five times as much money for primary elections in which he is unopposed.
Pete Sepp, vice president of communications for the National Taxpayers Union (NTU), told CNSNews.com late Friday that his group has worked with Public Citizen on numerous government reform issues in the past. But when it comes to the prospect of making taxpayers foot the bill for presidential campaigns, the two groups part company.
"To our mind, taxpayers already shell out too much money for politics and especially for protecting incumbents," Sepp said, noting that there are legitimate questions about misuse of public resources for political gain. "I don't think the way to address them is to ask taxpayers to shell out even more."
The NTU examined taxpayer funding in the 2000 presidential campaign prior to Public Citizen's launch of the WhiteHouseForSale.org website.
"We came up with a tally of almost $325 million in federal, state and local taxpayer funding for the last presidential elections, from the primaries through the conventions to the general," he said, noting that the figure includes the cost of the presidential transition team and the inauguration. "In our book, that's already too much money."
Public Citizen plans to update the website, using data from both FEC reports and published news reports, to track contributions to the Bush-Cheney '04 reelection campaign and to identify as many "Pioneers" and "Rangers" as possible.
The group did not say if it would conduct similar tracking on Democrats, third party presidential candidates or established bundling organizations like "Emily's List," a pro-abortion conduit that has given exclusively to Democrats for almost a decade, according to FEC data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
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