Who bankrolls Bush and his Democratic rivals?

A look at the presidential race

By

 Updated:

Enron Corp., the Houston-based energy firm that touched off a financial, legal and political scandal when it declared bankruptcy in December 2001, remains the top career patron of President George W. Bush, whose prolific fundraising in 2003 shattered all previous records for candidates. Enron's employees and political action committee have given more than $600,000 to Bush over the course of his political career, according to a new Center for Public Integrity book, The Buying of the President 2004 (HarperCollins).

In 2003, executives of the reorganized Enron—including Joseph W. Sutton, the company's chairman—continued to contribute to the Bush campaign.

Bush has already raised more money than any other candidate in history in the year before the election, a whopping $85.2 million. That comes in the context of what has already been a record primary season for candidate fundraising. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean opted out of the public financing system, which limits what candidates can spend in the primaries, citing the need to challenge Bush's prodigious fundraising as his reason; Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry followed suit, relying on his personal wealth to fuel his campaign. Late entrant Wesley Clark touted the more than $10 million his campaign raised in its first full quarter of fundraising, and even dark horse candidate Dennis Kucinich touted his larger-than-expected campaign coffers on his Web site.

Every major White House contender who has held past elective office has "career patrons," or longtime financial sponsors, who have underwritten his or her political career. And every major aspirant has used his government position to help his patrons.

The Buying of the President 2004: Who's Really Bankrolling Bush and His Democratic Challengers—and What They Expect in Return by Charles Lewis and the Center for Public Integrity is the only book to offer investigative profiles of all the major party candidates for president. The book tracks each candidate's relationships to his or her career patrons.

A team of 53 researchers, writers and editors at the Center for Public Integrity gathered and analyzed tens of thousands of pages of government data obtained from the Federal Election Commission, state campaign finance regulatory bodies, and federal agencies through the Freedom of Information Act, to provide the most in-depth analysis of the large donors behind those seeking the White House. The money race has its costs, the Center found:

  • While he was governor of Texas, Bush relied on Enron and its then-chairman and CEO Kenneth Lay for more than just campaign contributions. When Bush needed help launching his education plan, Lay, through the auspices of a quasi-official advisory group called the Governor's Business Council, pledged his support. When Bush wanted to start an internship program in the governor's office, Lay followed through with the funding. And when Lay wanted changes to tort, tax or environmental law, Bush returned the favors.
  • Bush, who has signaled an interest in Social Security privatization, and even appointed a commission that concluded in December 2001 that any reform of the New Deal program should "include a system of voluntary personal accounts," numbers financial firms Merrill Lynch & Co. (his second most generous career patron), Credit Suisse First Boston (fifth), UBS Paine Webber (eighth) and Goldman Sachs Group (ninth) among his top ten patrons. All were members of a group called the Coalition for American Financial Security, which favors privatization—and the millions of individual stock market accounts (and brokerage fees to administer them) that would be created.
  • In 1999, while he was CEO of Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney wrote a letter to his predecessorAdobe Acrobat PDF in that office, Al Gore, opposing more stringent air standards. "Implementation of these standards," he wrote to Gore, "would cause great harm to consumers, my own industry, and the U.S. economy and will still not deliver the promised significant enhancement of health protection to the American public." As Vice President, Cheney played a lead role in shaping the administration's energy policies, which critics charge will lead to greater pollution and lower air quality. In his letter, Cheney also called on Gore to address any new standards in "full and open debate"— an ironic request, given that the secrecy surrounding Vice President Cheney's own energy policy task force generated an unprecedented lawsuit by the General Accounting Office and other suits that will soon be considered by the Supreme Court of the United States. For more on Cheney's letter, see "Full and Open Debate".
  • While governor, Howard Dean pushed for utility contract provisions that aided the power companies, but cost Vermont families millions of dollars in skyrocketing rates. Vermont has the sixth highest utility rates in the country, due in part to a series of long-term contracts between its major power companies. After years of pushing for Central Vermont Public Service Corp. and the smaller utilities it held to absorb the excess costs of their expensive contracts, Dean's Department of Public Service agreed to let ratepayers be billed for more than 90 percent of the excess costs—which could soar into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Central Vermont Public Service Corp. donated more than $10,000 to Dean's Fund for a Healthy America PAC—a hefty contribution in a state that limits campaign contributions for statewide offices to $400.
  • Securities and Exchange records show that Acxiom, a company that was seeking Homeland Security contracts, agreed to pay Gen. Wesley Clark hundreds of thousands of dollars for his help in persuading the government to buy the company's wares. Clark was a registered lobbyist while he served as a military analyst on CNN, and was still a lobbyist when he declared his candidacy on Sept. 17, 2003.
  • Rep. Richard Gephardt tried to lower taxes on alcohol at least five times over the years, much to the pleasure of his largest career patron, Anheuser Busch, which has given him more than $517,000 over the years.
  • Senator John Kerry wrote letters to the FCC asking it to delay its spectrum auction, keeping in line with his brother's law firm, which represents the telecommunications industry and has given the senator more than $210,000.
  • After receiving hundreds of thousands of contributions from biotechnology companies, Senator Joseph Lieberman hired the industry's top lobbyist for his staff and went on to introduce and co-sponsor bills for which this sector lobbied.

As previous editions of the book illustrated in 1996 and 2000, big money, special interests and large contributors pre-select the candidates for president before a single primary vote is recorded, and they influence the policies and platforms of the candidates seeking the nation's highest office.

The Buying of the President 2004 also provides new information about the "Top 50 Patrons" of the two major political parties, which illuminates the relationships between the presidential candidates and their respective parties. For example, the top "soft money" (large, unlimited contributions) donor to the Republican Party since 1991 has been Philip Morris, contributing $10.3 million. The top "soft money" donor to the Democratic Party since 1991 has been the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), contributing $16.5 million.

The book includes chapters on the bitter primary battle Bush campaign workers waged against John McCain, and looks closely at the Florida recount of 2000 and how President-elect Bush failed to reveal the names of hundreds of donors on his disclosure forms, including that of White House strategist Karl Rove. The book also profiles the Republican and Democratic parties, and offers an in-depth look at the first years of the Bush administration.

The Center for Public Integrity will continue to update its information on the candidates and their career patrons throughout the 2004 campaign on our Web site.

In 1996, the Center released the first edition of The Buying of the President, a month before the first caucuses and primaries. It became a finalist for the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) annual book award. As part of its continuing look at the 1996 campaign, the Center broke the "Lincoln Bedroom" campaign finance scandal involving the Clinton White House; its Public ireport won the Society of Professional Journalists "Public Service" newsletter award. In The Buying of the President 2000, which was also a finalist for the IRE book award, the Center was the first to identify Enron as Bush's top career patron.

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