Filthy Riches

The Ashcroft and Carnahan campaigns profit from money laundered through a new and deliberately confusing fundraising scheme

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. is an equal-opportunity campaign donor, and nowhere is that better illustrated than in the brewer's contributions to the two major political parties and their congressional candidates. Since January 1999, the company has written a grand total of $762,350 in checks -- some of it considered "hard" money, with strict limits under federal campaign-finance law, but most of it "soft" money, on which there are no limits. With eight weeks left before Election Day, it seems reasonable to assume our hometown brewery's contributions will hit the million-dollar mark.

After all, A-B gave some of the soft money in $100,000 and $50,000 chunks. For instance, the brewery gave the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) $50,000 on Jan. 29. That same month, the company handed over $100,000 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) in two $50,000 checks. On Dec. 6, it gave the NRSC another $50,000. And on Feb. 15, A-B dropped an additional $100,000 into the coffers of the Democratic National Committee.

Meanwhile, it's been handing out hard money as well. On Jan. 21, the company's political-action committee (PAC) gave Ashcroft 2000, the campaign committee for incumbent U.S. Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), the $5,000 maximum allowed before primary elections. Six months later, on June 24, the PAC gave Carnahan for Senate, the campaign committee for Ashcroft's Democratic challenger, Gov. Mel Carnahan, $5,000 as well. On Dec. 2, it gave Carnahan another $5,000.

Octavio Diaz

But one $50,000 donation stands out among all of A-B's giving: It was made on Sept. 24, 1999, to something called the Ashcroft Victory Committee. This is what's known as a "joint fundraising committee," which means it's a collaborative effort between Ashcroft and the Republican Party. The A-B donation begs a few questions: Why would a company that has given money to a candidate and his political party turn around and give money to a "joint" committee between the two? And because the joint committee cannot spend money directly on any political activity or campaign, where does that money end up?

The questions are significant, because the Ashcroft Victory Committee has reportedly raised $2.5 million. The same questions apply to Missouri 2000, a joint fundraising committee between Carnahan and the Democratic party, which has raised $2 million as of this month.

The devil, they say, is in the details, but when it comes to the trendiest new money-generating strategy in federal elections, the joint fundraising committee, the details are hard to come by -- probably by design.

Even as the politicians and national parties they team up with claim that joint fundraisers make it easier for donors to give money to multiple entities at the same time, the funnels, tunnels and tributaries of the tortuous new system make a mockery of federal election law. The details, for instance, about what happened to the $50,000 Anheuser-Busch donation are impossible to track. By the time the money collected by a joint committee flows through four different state and national party committees and "federal" and "nonfederal" accounts, the truth has been washed away, and the new fundraising technique allows money that would otherwise be banned from supporting congressional candidates to do exactly that.

"It's a way, in essence, for the candidate to launder money through the party," says Don Simon of Washington, D.C., general counsel for Common Cause, a money-and-politics watchdog group that recently filed a complaint about joint fundraising committees with the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

And like most modern washing machines, this one has a spin cycle, and whirling around in it are national party committees, senatorial party committees, congressional party committees, state party committees and candidate committees, all with their own federal accounts and nonfederal accounts, which in turn are ruled by allocation formulas and transfer methods and contribution limits, which are further complicated by the different state and federal laws that govern them and the partisan ways of reporting it all. Republicans do it one way, Democrats another. A certain percentage of the funds is reported to the FEC, the rest, presumably, to the state ethics commission. Sometimes. Trying to find out how joint fundraising committees work, who contributes money and how that money is eventually spent is an effort safe only for diviners. Pat Harvey, executive director of the Missouri Alliance for Campaign Reform, suggests that they are "almost impossible for normal people to understand."

Once the wash is hung out to dry, it's so mangled as a result of the cycle that it's hard to tell what's clean and what's not.

When it comes to "hard money," federal law is fairly clear: It's money that can be spent directly to get a candidate elected. And contribution limits are set to prohibit the wealthy from having inordinate influence on federal elections. Individuals are limited to donating $2,000 to a candidate per election cycle ($1,000 for the primary and $1,000 for the general elections); corporations, labor unions and other special-interest groups can give $10,000 per election cycle, and then only through PACs that collect voluntary donations from employees or members.

In other words, the Ashcroft 2000 campaign has raised $6.4 million and the Carnahan for Senate Campaign has raised $5.7 million from individuals and PACs giving within these set limits. In addition, individuals and PACs can make donations of hard money to political parties within the limits: $20,000 per year for individuals, $15,000 for PACs.

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