'Struggling' Bradley cashed in as a speaker

Fees, bundled gifts at odds with image

By Michael Kranish, Globe Staff, 11/04/99

ASHINGTON - To hear Bill Bradley tell it, he spent 1997 and 1998 ''struggling as a small businessman'' and getting to know real people.

And, Bradley says, he has collected campaign money this year without relying on corporate political action committee money, unlike some other politicians.

Now there is a challenge to Bradley's effort to present himself as a regular guy and a reform-minded candidate, especially by supporters of Vice President Al Gore.

The former New Jersey senator hardly struggled financially in the two years after he left the Senate, collecting $2.7 million in speaking fees and more than $500,000 in consulting fees, most of it from special interest groups, brokers and bankers.

Moreover, Bradley has been able to compete with Vice President Al Gore in campaign fund-raising partly by using the practice of bundling contributions from many people within the same company.

Thus, while Bradley won't accept a $5,000 PAC contribution from a company, he did take $209,000 in bundled contributions from the Wall Street firm of Goldman Sachs, according to a report to be released today by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

''That is more than 40 times better than taking PAC money,'' said the center's director, Larry Makinson, who oversaw the study. Makinson said Bradley's acceptance of speaking fees - which in one case amounted to $300,000 from a single company - and the bundled contributions are part of a Bradley pattern that has gone largely unnoticed until now.

''He finds out how the system works, and he uses it to his advantage,'' Makinson said. ''He does everything legally, but certainly to his advantage. He hasn't broken any laws, but you can't ignore the fact that someone got $300,000 from a corporation.''

Gore spokesman Chris Lehane earlier this week mocked Bradley's comment that he spent 1997 and 1998 pursuing interests not available to him in the Senate. ''Apparently those interests included millions of dollars in special interest speaking fees and big business consulting money,'' Lehane said.

Gore, to be sure, has some well-reported and questionable fund-raising activities, such at his appearance at a California Buddhist temple to raise money for the 1996 Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. This year, the vice president has hired a number of lobbyists from special interest groups as top aides, including Carter Eskew, who previously worked for the tobacco industry. Gore also has taken bundled contributions, although not as much as Bradley. Both Gore and Bradley do not take PAC money.

While there is no suggestion of illegality about Bradley's personal financial windfall or the bundled campaign contributions, the practices could create a perception problem, something Bradley has previously been careful to deal with as soon as they arose.

For example, when he was a senator 10 years ago, Bradley was criticized for accepting tens of thousands of dollars in speaking fees and then became one of the first senators to stop accepting such money. ''I didn't want to have to deal with questions about potential abuses by other people,'' Bradley said in explaining his decision in 1989.

But in the two-year period after Bradley resigned from the Senate - including a year in which he was actively preparing to run for president - he became one of the country's most prolific and best-paid speakers.

Often earning more than $30,000 per speech, he collected $2.7 million in two years, according to Bradley's financial disclosure statements and income tax returns. Typically, Bradley flew to a city, delivered a talk on ''America: The Path Ahead'' for an hour or two to a corporate group, and collected his check.

One company, Key Corp. Bank, liked Bradley's speeches so much that it hired him for 13 lectures, paying Bradley an estimated $300,000 to $400,000. The bank hired Bradley for speeches in locations ranging from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Ore., to Anchorage, Alaska.

Bradley's speeches, usually delivered to the bank's clients, focused on ''the impact of the new economy on pluralistic democracy,'' a company spokesman said.

Bradley's customers included Barclays Global Investors, Sprint Long Distance, Advanstar Communications, Lubrizol, First Union Capital Markets, HealthPartners, the Professional Liability Underwriting organization, the American Telemarketing Association, and the Fabless Semiconductor Association.

Bradley also was paid $200,000 as an adviser to J.P. Morgan & Co., $100,000 as a consultant to Morgan Guaranty, and another $200,000 in various other contracts.

Yet when Bradley was asked on by New Hampshire radio station WSMN-AM last January how he had spent the prior two years, he answered: ''For the last two years I've been a small businessman with about three people working for me. I've been out here struggling as a small businessman.''

Bradley's fund-raising success in the campaign arena has come partly from his ability to raise so many bundled contributions from Wall Street firms. In addition to the $209,000 from Goldman Sachs, Bradley's campaign received the following, according to the Center for Responsive Politics: Citigroup Inc., $90,450; Lehman Brothers, $87,650; Merrill Lynch, $74,190; Morgan Stanley, Dean Witter & Co., $67,375.

For comparison, Gore's largest bundled contribution was $122,875 from Ernst & Young, while Republican George W. Bush's largest was $185,000 from Vinson & Elkins.

Bradley, as a member of the Senate Finance Committee, frequently worked on legislation that affected many of the companies that paid him speaking fees or gave his campaign bundled contributions.

Earlier this year, Bradley described his committee work: ''Whenever we considered a big tax bill, the room would be full - standing-room only - and the hall outside would be lined with lobbyists, each trying to get a provision in the tax bill that would reduce his or her clients' taxes while leaving the rest of us paying higher taxes.''

Speaking fees, or honorariums, for members of Congress became a controversial topic a decade ago, leading Congress eventually to ban them in exchange for a pay raise. Even after Bradley stopped accepting the fees in 1989, he defended them as an appropriate supplement to his income, and he denied that any policy was influenced by the payments.

Bradley spokesman Eric Hauser said Bradley stopped accepting the money to avoid any questions about possible improprieties.

But Bradley resumed accepting the fees after retiring from the Senate because ''he hadn't decided to run for president,'' Hauser said. ''He wasn't thinking of running for president.''