Book details biggest donors to presidential candidates

Associated Press, 01/05/00

WASHINGTON -- The biggest financial backers of the major presidential candidates are the same special interests who have supported them throughout their political careers, according to a book being released today.

"The Buying of the President 2000," which details the relationships between the candidates and their most generous contributors, was written by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity and published by Avon. The center released similar studies of the presidential candidates in 1996 and congressional leaders in 1998.

"All the leading presidential candidates have a long-standing group of career patrons who have sponsored their careers and for whom they have done favors using their government offices," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the center. "It's a mutually beneficial relationship."

Texas Gov. George W. Bush's top contributors to his Republican presidential campaign have been employees of the law firm of Vinson & Elkins and their families. The Texas-based firm has given $185,100 through Sept. 30. Overall, its employees and their families have contributed $316,700 to Bush's various campaigns, his third most generous donor.

One of Vinson & Elkins clients is the energy firm Enron. Throughout Bush's political career, Enron employees and their families have been Bush's top patron, contributing $550,025. For the presidential campaign, they have given $92,600 through Sept. 30, seventh most among his contributors.

Enron was one of 26 companies grandfathered under a 1991 law from having to comply with Texas' clean air rules. The firms agreed to voluntarily reduce pollution, but an Environmental Defense Fund study found few companies scaling back their emissions.

Bush campaign officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.

One of Bush's challengers, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., counts employees of four communications companies and their families, led by US West, among his six biggest givers. McCain chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the communications industry. He has introduced legislation to allow Bell operating companies such as US West to carry data over long-distance lines, which would help the phone companies to offer high-speed Internet service.

Between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, 1999, US West employees and family members have contributed $43,725 to McCain's presidential campaign. The only company that has been a bigger source of campaign cash for the presidential run has been Viacom. Over the years, Viacom has been McCain's fourth-largest benefactor.

McCain campaign spokesman Howard Opinsky noted that the Commerce Committee has jurisdiction over 80 percent of American corporations, not just communications companies, and that the senator has a wide base of support.

"We have over 100,000 donors to McCain with an average contribution of $108," Opinsky said. "We're very happy with the overwhelming support of Senator McCain's independent conservative reform message from all of our contributors."

On the Democratic side, members of the accounting/lobbying firm of Ernst & Young and their families has been Vice President Al Gore's biggest benefactors. They have given $125,200 over the years -- more than anyone else for his House, Senate and presidential campaigns. They also are the No. 1 financial supporter of his current presidential run, contributing $122,875 through Sept. 30.

The firm has lobbied on behalf of clients favoring a tax-free Internet. Gore has promised to seek an international agreement to make the Internet "a permanent duty-free zone."

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane could not immediately be reached for comment.

Top patrons for Gore's challenger, former Sen. Bill Bradley, hail from Wall Street. His biggest financial backers throughout his career have been Citigroup, whose employees and their families gave $454,065; Merrill Lynch, $169,500; and Goldman Sachs, $148,800. For his presidential campaign, Goldman Sachs leads the way with $209,500 in contributions from employees and their families through Sept. 30, followed by Citicorp, $90,450; Lehman Brothers, $87,650; and Merrill Lynch, $74,190.

In the Senate, Bradley opposed efforts to reduce the unlimited corporate deduction for interest, a proposal designed to reduce leveraged buyouts and corporate takeovers. He voted to limit stockholders' ability to sue for fraud, and then backed a successful effort to override President Clinton's veto of the measure.

Bradley spokesman Tony Wyche said he hadn't seen the book and could not comment.