Bush assails McCain, but both use perk

By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 2/5/2000

ASHINGTON - Governor George W. Bush of Texas accused Senator John McCain yesterday of taking corporate airplane rides and campaign contributions from industries he oversees as a Senate committee chairman. But records show Bush accepts these kinds of favors as well.

Bush's year-end filing with the Federal Election Commission shows his campaign has accepted several dozen corporate jet rides, many from companies that are regulated by the Texas state government.

''I believe that when you're a committee chairman on the Commerce Committee, then you're going to be capable of finding people to fly you on airplanes and very capable of using that position to raise money,'' Bush said while campaigning in Michigan.

McCain ''is raising money from people who have been in front of his committee. Nothing illegal about that; but I want to make sure the facts here are laid bare,'' Bush said. ''I think it's important for us to make sure that the Washington double talk doesn't continue.''

But FEC records show the Bush campaign used corporate airplanes more than three dozen times.

The Bush campaign, for example, used the Enron Corporation's corporate airplane on seven occasions. Enron is a Houston-based energy giant that has had extensive dealings with the Texas government over utility deregulation and air pollution controls during Bush's terms.

The Pilgrim's Pride Corp., a Texas chicken-processing firm whose waste-disposal practices are regulated by the state, gave the Bush campaign the use of its corporate airplane on three occasions.

The Occidental Chemical Corp. of Dallas, another firm affected by pollution issues, loaned the Bush campaign its plane on three other occasions. Other firms who offered the use of aircraft were Phar-Mor, the Reynolds DeWitt Co., USX, and Union Pacific.

McCain, meanwhile, took airplane rides from several big companies with business before his committee, including the communications giant Bell South, the CSX Corp., and Bloomberg Financial Services.

Like McCain, whose use of a Paxson Communications jet made headlines last month, the Bush campaign paid the various corporations the legally-required fare. The fee required by law is significantly below the cost of operating the airplanes.

When it came to raising money, new FEC reports showed that Bush continues to cultivate deep-pocketed businessmen, many from Texas.

After reaching the legal limit of what they could directly contribute to his campaign, some of Bush's wealthiest supporters found a new way to help his cause and raised $5.1 million for a joint ''victory fund'' with state Republican parties late last year. Two of the 20 state parties that benefited from the fund drive were the critical opening states in the nominating process, Iowa and New Hampshire.

Dozens of Bush's fund-raisers joined in their money-raising sprint from late November to Dec. 31, according to FEC records filed this week. In that six-week period, the average donation was $13,000 and the members of a few wealthy families joined to give from $50,000 to $150,000.

As a tactic that other campaigns could not afford, the ''1999 Victory Fund Committee'' further demonstrates the fund-raising strength of Bush's candidacy. While his rivals work to scrape together money for the primaries, the Bush ''victory fund'' is for the general election.

Indeed, should Bush lose the nomination the money would benefit McCain's fall election campaign, along with Republican candidates up and down the ticket in the participating states.

Included on the list of 20 states that will profit from the fund are Massachusetts, such Electoral College giants as California, New York, Florida, and Ohio, plus swing states like Michigan, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington.

The fund takes advantage of an obscure feature of federal law that allows presidential campaigns to raise money in conjunction with state parties. It permits Bush's top contributors to make a $25,000 yearly donation for 1999 after they have hit the $1,000 federal limit on direct gifts to Bush, said Shiela Krumholz, the research director for The Center for Responsive Politics, a public interest group here.

''It is getting pretty sophisticated,'' said Krumholz. But ''it's not a way around the law.''

Peter Eisner, the managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, another good-government group, said the victory fund is ''once again an example of an elite group of people who are buying access to the candidate of their choice.''

The ''victory fund'' can be used for party-building activities, voter registration and turnout drives and television advertising campaigns. It includes well-known individuals who donate unregulated ''soft money'' to the Republican Party each year, and some now-familiar members of Bush's fund-raising ''pioneers,'' who each pledged to raise $100,000 or more for his candidacy. All told, the pioneers gave about $1 million of the $5 million fund.

Some of the biggest contributors were: members of the Bass oil family of Fort Worth ($75,000); members of the DeWitt family, Bush family friends and business partners from the Midwest ($87,500); members of the Hicks family of Dallas, of the Hicks, Muse, Tate and Furst, Inc. leveraged buyout firm ($60,000); members of the Hunt oil family ($40,000); members of the Lindner family of Cincinnati and Chiquita banana fame ($150,000); and members of the Reynolds family, Bush family friends and business partners from Cincinnati ($80,000).

Elaine Chao, the wife of Republican Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, gave $20,000. McConnell has led the opposition to McCain's attempts to get a campaign-finance bill through the US Senate.