Commentary: Under the Influence: Why This Series?

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British statesman George Canning wrote more than a century ago: "Away with the cant of 'measures, not men!' the idle supposition that it is the harness and not the horses that draw the chariots along." Information for citizens about the elaborate electoral process (a.k.a. "the horse race") and individual candidate statements and policy positions is obviously very interesting and important every four years as the most powerful nation on earth peacefully transfers power, and most news media coverage focuses heavily on these aspects.

But let’s face it — sometimes the rhetoric, the ads, the carefully crafted position papers, are merely misleading tripe, calculated to obscure fundamental, less appealing realities about a candidate’s true beliefs and intentions.

At the Center for Public Integrity, we have always believed it also is extremely insightful to know precisely who is close to the next president of the United States.

When we elect a president, we are getting a “package deal” we are also electing his career patrons, those financial sponsors of his political campaigns. In the past, the American people have seldom known the precise identity of those fortunate benefactors, who are the first in line to seek and receive favors from the new occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Thus, in 1996 and this year in our new book, The Buying of the President 2000, we have identified the “Top Ten Career Patrons” of the candidates, as well as the “Top Fifty Patrons” of the two major political parties since 1991. Additional information is available on the Center for Public Integrity website.

But understanding who the career patrons are, and the specific nature of their mutually beneficial relationship with the presidential candidate, is still not enough.

The next U.S. officials

Besides the career patrons and the paid campaign staff and consultants, there is another group of unpaid policy advisers and fund-raisers surrounding the White House aspirant. Many of these people if their candidate prevails at the polls — will be the next U.S. officials appointed by the next president to serve at the highest levels in the White House and various Cabinet departments and agencies. We have always had the quaint notion that the American people need to know who our next, most senior government officials will be, BEFORE the election.

In February 1992 and 1996, we released Under the Influence, a primer about the major presidential candidates and their advisers, and we do so again this millennium election year. The methodology for all three reports is the same. For several weeks, we have been studying hundreds of news stories and Web sites (this year, the Internet is much more significant in terms of information, and some candidates actually list their advisers online), analyzing campaign contribution and lobbying records, along with Justice Department Foreign Agent Registration Act records, and calling the respective campaigns and their network of unpaid policy advisers.

A proven track record

The Center for Public Integrity has been in operation since 1990, and this nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization has produced more than 40 investigative reports about public service and ethics-related issues. But our Under the Influence reports in 1992 and 1996 were particularly “newsworthy” and illuminating about our national political process.

For example, in 1992, from Justice Department records, we discovered that the deputy chairman of President Bush’s re-election campaign, James Lake, was simultaneously working as a highly paid lobbyist for the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, the controlling shareholder of the corrupt Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI). This seemed particularly outrageous to us, because at the time of our report, BCCI was under seven federal grand jury investigations in the United States. The president did not fire or even chastise Lake, but his campaign did publicly criticize the Center for releasing this inconvenient information based upon government records. (As a postscript, three years later, lobbyist Lake pleaded guilty to completely unrelated wire fraud and electoral law violations).

Skunk at garden party

In 1996, a new Under the Influence Center report again became the skunk at another presidential candidate’s garden party. Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan had come within three percentage points of GOP front-runner Bob Dole in Iowa, and was leading in the polls in the upcoming New Hampshire primary. In our report and at a packed National Press Club news conference, we noted that a Buchanan campaign co-chairman, Larry Pratt, had worked closely with white supremacist hate groups such as Aryan Nation, helping them to develop militia capabilities. The Associated Press issued an unusual “Urgent Bulletin” nationwide about this Center finding; and within hours of our Washington news conference, Buchanan removed Pratt from his campaign. The next two weeks, journalists found that three other extremists were advising Buchanan.

Both the 1992 and 1996 Under the Influence reports contained brief but revealing biographical sketches of more than 100 unpaid policy advisers to the major presidential candidates. For example, Republican presidential candidate Dole had complained on the floor of the U.S. Senate about former U.S. officials becoming lobbyists for foreign corporations and governments, but our 1996 report revealed that Dole was apparently not losing any sleep over the issue. There were 18 registered foreign agents advising his campaign.

In 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton said repeatedly that he would end influence peddling in Washington. However, our 1992 Under the Influence report found that actually more than half of his unpaid campaign policy advisers were lobbyists in Washington, making huge sums of money representing foreign nations and corporations seeking favors from the U.S. government.

‘Truth in advertising’

And so, here we are, in the thick of the first presidential election of the new century and millennium. When it comes to advisers to the candidates, the phenomenon of influence peddling continues, and of course the ever-growing number of lawyers and lobbyists in Washington keep making huge sums of money off of their perceived access to power. Depending upon who is elected president in November, dozens of advisers will see their professional stock rise. Some will join the new administration, other will represent deep-pocketed corporate clients who want favors from it. But it is vitally important that we know who these people are now, not in 2001 after the die already has been cast.

At this very moment, we have four major presidential candidates who all have been talking about reform. Four men who are attempting to convince the American people that they, and they alone, can cleanse Washington of its excessive dependency upon powerful special interests. But how sincere is each of them? How much campaign cash and “free advice” have they each received from Washington lobbyists? And how many companies and their lobbyists have already been swirling around the candidates, like hungry buzzards poised to pick the carcass of trust and independence clean?

What follows, then, by dint of identifying and describing the candidate advisers, is a kind of informal “truth in advertising” analysis about the man who will become the next president of the United States.

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