Center wins first Pulitzer!

Black lung investigation honored

Get more award-winning investigations:

$5,000 buys companies access to GOP attorneys general

By

 Updated:

WASHINGTON, D.C. March 21, 2000 — For as little as $5,000, corporations are buying access to presidential candidate George W. Bush, along with key Bush strategist Karl Rove—not to mention potential protection from billions of dollars in lawsuits.

Five thousand dollars is the low end of the suggested $5,000-to-$25,000 price tag for joining the Republican Attorneys General Association. The group, which serves as a virtual slush-fund operation for the Republican National Committee, is financed by unlimited and undisclosed soft-money contributions from individuals, corporations and political action committees who join the organization created by the nations 12 elected Republican attorneys general.

At the very least, association with RAGA could give businesses advance word of costly state-prosecuted lawsuits, such as claims against the tobacco industry that cost the industry some $246 billion. At best, corporations that join RAGA secure potential allies in the White House and advocates in the offices of attorneys general who could discourage joining in such litigation.

An attorney general is a states chief legal officer, responsible for protecting the public interest, the public health and consumer’s rights. The big hurt imposed on tobacco companies was a direct result of states acting in concert to defend what they contended was the public interest.

It was the tobacco case that spawned the idea for RAGA. Two conservative attorneys general approached the Republican National Committee with a plan to fill its campaign coffers from the same deep pockets targeted by consumer protection groups.

The pitch: Donate to the RNC to ensure nonparticipation by Republican attorneys general in lawsuits against the corporations’ interests. “The Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) was born out of concerns arising out of the recent industry-wide lawsuits that seek to promote public policy changes via the courthouse rather than the statehouse,” says a fund-raising Jan. 19 letter from Republican Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, who is an executive committee member of RAGA.

Attorneys general are elected or appointed to “promote the public interest, not to protect the interests of big business,” said Mark Pryor, Arkansas attorney general and a Democrat. “RAGA is promising these big corporations that if you elect Republican attorneys general, you won’t get sued.”

RAGA insists in its material that the Republican attorneys general banded together for ideological reasons—“limited government, legal reform, personal responsibility, free enterprise, judicial restraint.”

However, the main objective of RAGA appears to be to put pro-business Republican attorneys general in every state house. Active campaigning for Republican candidates has already begun for the year-old group.

(The group’s first meeting, last year, attracted 70 people to South Carolina. The organization does not identify the 70.)

The association presses for funding from the very corporations that are at risk for high-dollar antitrust or consumer-protection lawsuits. A fund-raising letter to corporate givers from Cornyn, of Texas, said the following in describing the state lawsuit climate: “Some of the Attorneys General of other states in the wake of tobacco litigation, have created a wish list for future mass state lawsuits—car rental companies, pharmaceutical firms, makers of lead paint and gun manufacturers.”

Cornyn asserts that these are the corporations and industries being targeted by lawsuit-hungry Democratic attorneys general, but says that he and the other Republicans will counter their efforts.

Democratic Attorney General Mike Moore of Mississippi led the states charge against the tobacco industry. He told the Center that the attorneys general “only go against the wrongdoers and only those that break the law. We are not anti-big-business but anti-law breakers.

“It is clear that RAGA is courting the very corporations that currently or potentially face litigation over their consumer practices. Microsoft Corp. spokesman Rick Miller acknowledged to the Center that Microsoft is a member, donated $10,000, and plans to attend the associations March 30-31 conference at the Barton Creek Resort outside Austin, Texas.

Microsoft has antitrust litigation pending in 23 states.

“Microsoft’s contribution to RAGA is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” said Moore of Mississippi. “With a case in 23 states, to align itself with this organization, there could easily be conflicts of interest here. RAGA will go solicit money from the corporate interests that some of their brothers and sisters have suits against. It isn’t the right thing for chief legal officers to be doing from a legal and ethical standpoint.”

RAGA has different membership levels for would-be donors. A $25,000 annual donation buys a “Roundtable” membership, which provides “preferred seating” at events, private RAGA conversations and a copy of the membership directory. A $15,000 gift earns a seat on the “committee,” which translates into tickets to events and entrée into RAGA conference calls. Memberships costing $10,000 and $5,000 afford less access. RAGA is quick to stipulate that there is “no statutory limit on the amount a corporation, individual, or PAC [political action committee] may contribute.”

Not only is there no limit, but no disclosure and no paper trail. RAGA has set itself up to be completely hidden from public view within the RNC. It works through the Republican National State Elections Committee, a soft-money fund of the RNC that transfers money to state parties, to the National Republican Governors Association and to RAGA. Donations are recorded as going to the RNC, but from there it is impossible to determine what goes into the RAGA fund or how RAGA spends the money.

RAGA is able to hide its contributors and expenditures because intra-party transfers are not reported to the Federal Election Commission. RAGA’s meetings are closed to the public and no membership or donor list is available to nonmembers.

Ben Dupuy, RAGA executive director, did not respond to the Center’s repeated requests for an interview.

The big draw at RAGA’s March 30-31 conference in Texas is Texas Gov. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate. For a minimum of $5,000, the donor gets access to the presidential candidate for two hours at a private reception at the Governors Mansion. The next morning, the group is to meet with Rove, presidential strategist and Bush’s friend of 25 years. Rove is to provide a “political briefing.” Both events offer corporate members a chance to raise complaints and put their legal concerns on a national group’s agenda.

[After our initial report, Scott McClellan, press officer for Bush, told the Center March 28 that Bush would be in Wisconsin on the opening day of the RAGA conference and not at the Governor’s Mansion. The Center had been told by two separate offices related to the governor that Bush was scheduled to attend the mansion reception. On March 30, the scheduling office at the Governor’s Mansion told the Center that the reception would not be held at the mansion.]

Lobbyists and corporate representatives from sweepstakes, alcohol, high-tech and lead-paint companies, along with gun manufacturers and tobacco interests will likely be present, according to Democratic attorneys general and a conclusion from the names of those whom RAGA appears to have targeted for participation.

Officers of the Republican Attorneys General Association

Charles Condon, chair, attorney general of South Carolina

Jane Brady, vice-chair, attorney general of Delaware

Bill Pryor, treasurer, attorney general of Alabama

Mark Earley, secretary, attorney general of Virginia

John Cornyn, executive committee member, attorney general of Texas