Lining the pockets of McCain’s Reform Institute

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The Reform Institute — borne of John McCain’s failed 2000 presidential bid — was created as part of the senator’s efforts to clean up campaign finance. Ironically, it is now viewed by some as a fast-track ticket for well-heeled donors to spread their influence and earn McCain’s gratitude. Because unlike campaign contributions, donations to the Institute are unlimited and unregulated.

“He has his coat with a certain number of pockets . . . his campaign committee, his political action committee, the party committee,” explains Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit government watchdog (and a former managing editor here at the Center). “This is just one more pocket for special interests to put money in.”

We are a centrist think tank,” responds Chris Dreibelbis, the Institute’s communications and economic policy director. “The Institute does not endorse candidates for political office and does not engage in any electioneering activities.”

For a non-partisan think tank, though, the Reform Institute sure attracts a striking array of big-time contributors and bundlers for McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign. Of the 74 individuals, corporations, and foundations that donated more than $500 to the Institute, more than half of them — 42 — contributed to at least one of McCain’s “other pockets”: his presidential campaign, his Straight Talk America PAC, or the Republican National Committee.

The year after McCain resigned from his post as honorary chair of the Institute, he announced his presidential campaign’s exploratory committee. At the same time the Institute expanded its areas of interest to include energy and climate stewardship, homeland security, immigration reform, and economic policy — all key planks of McCain’s platform.

The Institute publicly discloses its donors on their website (which they are not legally required to do) grouped into ranges based on the size of their contribution, such as $500 to $4,999, $5,000 to $49,999, and $50,000 and above. Based on this list, the 42 “double donors” gave the Institute at least $304,500. They (and in some cases, their family members) also paid out $412,996 to McCain, his affiliated committees, or the RNC, often giving the full amount allowable under FEC regulations, according to information gathered from the Center for Responsive Politics. They additionally bundled between $750,000 and $1,600,000 for his presidential campaign. All of these figures represent money given in the 2006 and 2008 election cycles.

Among the notable names in the group: William Bloomfield, a campaign bundler who donated in the top threshold to the Institute. The Bloomfield family supplied McCain’s organizations with $158,300 themselves and between $250,000 and $500,000 in bundling money. A real estate magnate, Bloomfield is a California state co-chairman of the RNC’s 2008 Victory Finance Committee, which raises money to support McCain’s presidential campaign. The position seems to be a popular one among the Institute’s donors. Two other McCain bundlers and contributors to the think tank, David Pottruck and Greg Wendt, also serve as California co-chairs of the committee.

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