As Mark Twain once put it, “A truth is not hard to kill and a lie told well is immortal.”
In the 21st century in the United States of America, it is still astonishingly easy to assassinate a political opponent’s character, with little or no accountability or basis in fact. It is hardly new to politics anywhere that money and the messages it buys often create devastating perceptions. But such smear tactics are more serious and offensive when they benefit major “mainstream” candidates seeking the Presidency, are utilized anonymously by mysterious, outside organizations and they occur in the wake of recent, historic, campaign finance reform and new political disclosure requirements.
The most stunning single fact to emerge—which should have been covered more heavily nationwide and was first broken by the Web site PoliticsNJ.com—was that disgraced former Senator Robert Torricelli, severely admonished for his unsavory campaign finance practices and forced to leave the Senate, had quietly donated $50,000 from his old Senate campaign account to Americans for Jobs. Torricelli reportedly also is a fundraiser for Senator Kerry’s presidential campaign.The Dean campaign cried foul, but no one, including the news media, could figure out exactly who was behind “Americans for Jobs.” The disturbing mystery was partly solved by Jim VandeHei of the Washington Post on February 11, after reviewing public Internal Revenue Service records filed under Section 527 of federal tax law. Unfortunately for voters and the general public, that legal disclosure information was filed January 30, 2004, nine days after the Iowa caucuses in which Massachusetts Senator John Kerry upset former Vermont governor Howard Dean. Those contribution records were updated again with another $337,000 in donations on March 4, 2004, for a total of exactly $1 million that the group raised.On November 7, 2003, a strange new group no one had ever heard of called “Americans for Jobs & Healthcare” was quietly formed and soon thereafter began running a million dollar operation including political ads against then-frontrunner Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean. The commercials ripped Dean over his positions or past record on gun rights, trade and Medicare growth. But the most inflammatory ad used the visual image of Osama bin Laden as a way to raise questions about Dean’s foreign policy credibility. While the spots ran, Americans for Jobs—through its then-spokesman, Robert Gibbs, a former Kerry campaign employee—refused to disclose its donors.
Why is one of the sleaziest former public officials helping Senator Kerry collect campaign cash? And now that Torricelli and other Kerry campaign donors have been “outed” for supporting the controversial group, why hasn’t Kerry been directly asked about the entire controversy? Indeed, why hasn’t the avowed campaign finance reformer publicly criticized either the caper or Torricelli? Kerry and his campaign staff declined to answer these and other related, on-the-record questions from the Center for Public Integrity. A Kerry spokesman, Chad Clanton, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that “I am told no one knew anything about it.”
Indeed, a Center for Public Integrity study of the 28 contributors to Americans for Jobs found that they have given more than $8.7 million to the Democratic Party in recent years and another $550,000 to the committees of those running for president.Americans for Jobs was a street rumble after dark, in which donors or fundraisers for the major Democratic presidential candidates then overshadowed by Dean—Kerry, Rep. Richard Gephardt, and retired General Wesley Clark—all piled on. Labor unions that had publicly endorsed Gephardt accounted for a fifth of the money—the International Longshoremen’s Association ($50,000), the Laborers’ International Union of North America ($50,000), the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers ($100,000), the International Association of Ironworkers ($25,000) and the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers ($5,000). A former Dean donor, former Slim-Fast Foods businessman S. Daniel Abraham, gave $200,000. Past Kerry donor Bernard Schwartz, chairman of Loral Space and Communications—the tenth leading donor to the Democratic Party, giving $5.3 million over the years—chipped in $15,000. A top money chaser for Wesley Clark, Alan Patricof, also donated to this shadowy group.
Among the greatest beneficiaries of these donations was Gephardt, who received more than $417,000. In fact, at least 23 of the 28 people contributing to Americans for Jobs had donated to Gephardt in the past. Some of the donors are also aligned with Kerry and gave almost $60,000 to his campaigns over the years.
Four of these 28 individual contributors had also given $7,200 to Dean between March and July of 2003. One of the donors told the Center that he had no idea the money would be used on attack ads. Rick Sloan, the communications director for International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, told the LA Times: “I tell you, these ads are despicable. If I have my way, we’ll ask for a refund.” But following his remarks published on December 17, 2003, his labor union is reported to have made another donation to Americans for Jobs for $50,000 on January 9, 2004.
Who exactly forms a stealth, hit-and-run operation in presidential politics today, up and down in six weeks, doing $1 million worth of damage in advertising and other spending before the new federal, 30-day broadcast limit on political issue ads by outside groups kicked in December 21?
The registered e-mail address of Americans for Jobs belonged to Mark W. Ward, a client specialist in the Washington, D.C., office of the billion dollar law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, one of the largest law firms in the world, which also has a large lobbying network representing companies like Verizon, Entergy-Koch LP, and Pharmaceutical Research & Manufacturers of America. Ward wrote the IRS a letter on Skadden Arps letterhead on Jan. 30, 2004 accompanying Americans for Jobs’ first and so far only financial filing.Americans for Jobs’ address was 2000 M Street, N.W., Suite 800, in Washington, D.C., the same location for DWJ Consulting, its “custodian of records” one David W. Jones, apparently the group’s executive director and a political adviser for years to Gephardt. Jones told the Washington Post, “Our goal was to point out where Howard Dean stood on the issues and point out that he had no foreign policy experience. Clearly those goals were accomplished.” He denied that there was any coordination with the various presidential candidates. (See official statement from Jones.)
“Mark does our FEC filings and IRS filings,” said Melissa Miles, an attorney with Skadden, Arps. The firm is listed as the recipient of $36,000 in itemized expenditures from Americans for Jobs. Skadden Arps is also the fifth most generous career patron to Senator Kerry, its employees directly donating $125,550 to his campaigns, its clients lavishing many times more than that over the years. In fact, the law firm and its employees are the largest donors to Kerry for the current election cycle. But Miles said Kerry “had nothing to do with [the 527] to our knowledge.”
Hit-and-run political organizations are the bane of any open democracy. Who can forget the infamous Willie Horton commercial in the 1988 presidential campaign or the dozen groups all coincidentally friendly to George W. Bush that suddenly materialized in the 2000 GOP primary in South Carolina, spending millions of dollars and spreading the worst kind of vituperative bile to defame Senator John McCain and his wife? Who can forget the below-board tactics used to bring down incumbent Democratic Georgia Senator Max Cleland two years later, in which his opponent paid for TV commercials questioning the patriotism of Vietnam War hero Cleland. In an interview for The Buying of the President 2004 (HarperCollins), McCain told me that the same people who quietly assisted Bush in South Carolina in his 2000 primary showdown there also were involved in Georgia. The slander was “run by the same people, [former Christian Coalition executive director and Bush “Pioneer”] Ralph Reed . . . The same outfit, the same organizations, and I will never, ever get over them running a picture of Max Cleland, Saddam Hussein, and Osama bin Laden, [this about] a man who left three limbs on the battlefield in Vietnam. That’s just something I will never get over.”
The strutting and braggadocio of ostensibly independent organizations with impeccably and indubitably dependent pedigrees give the impression of a wild, wild west town with no sheriff and no jail. For example, according to National Journal, we have the Republican 501(c)(4) organization, Progress for America, which expects to raise $40 million to $60 million for television ads, direct mail and other “outreach” and “issue truth squads” on behalf of President Bush during 2004. Unlike 527s, this group is not required by law to publicly disclose its donors. The counsel for the group is Ben Ginsberg, also the chief outside counsel to the Bush campaign. Ken Mehlman, manager of the Bush-Cheney ’04 campaign, and Ed Gillespie, chairman of the Republican National Committee, were among 150 party poobahs at a Willard Hotel bash for the organization last October.All of this underscores the profoundly disturbing state of our politics today. Storefront political hit squads can be created overnight, as easily as Internet investment scams, with candidates and the public victimized with nowhere to turn. Political operatives continue to form substantially unaccountable “cutout” organizations to quickly, effectively and virtually anonymously influence electoral outcomes. In fact, since 2000 there have been 42 groups who have filed only one disclosure report with the IRS. Collectively, these organizations still raised $32 million in contributions, an average of about $781,000 each, according to data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity.
Despite the valiant, well-intentioned efforts of the campaign finance reformers there is an unavoidable sense of chaos and opportunity for mischief. The Federal Election Commission, which unabashedly attempted to diminish the McCain-Feingold law with a 300-page “devil-in-the-details” rulemaking document, has an abysmal record of regulation and enforcement. In the nearly three decade history of the FEC, there has been only one successful case brought against a campaign for coordinating “independent” expenditures.” With few if any records available on a timely basis, journalists find themselves in the dark, desperately seeking the dirty tricksters of 21st century America.The Democrats, meanwhile, have been aggressively raising money for several 527 surrogate party organizations, including the Media Fund, begun by Harold Ickes, the former Clinton White House deputy chief of staff who also serves on the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee. Former President Clinton wholeheartedly supports and will help this effort designed to raise $95 million for issue ads against Bush this year. Billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros has announced that he will contribute $10 million to another 527 group, America Coming Together, a huge voter mobilization effort.*
In the recent Iowa caucuses, we saw our first political mugging of the 2004 presidential campaign, Democrats sneakily slurring Democrats. It absolutely will not be the last, considering the remarkable cash advantage and sordid reputation of White House political director Karl Rove, who years ago taught negative campaigning techniques at the University of Texas. The bubble and unexpected implosion of frontrunner Dean’s $47 million candidacy will be studied for years to come, and no one can or should plausibly suggest that his political demise was substantially attributable to the attacks from Americans for Jobs or any other para-mudslinging subterfuge efforts we don’t know about.
But shouldn’t the American people, including the national news media, insist on knowing who is mucking around their democracy in the midst of a presidential election?
* Full disclosure: Since the mid-1990s, Soros’ Open Society Institute has been a major supporter of various Center for Public Integrity projects.
Agustin Armendariz, Alex Knott and Alexander Cohen contributed research.