WASHINGTON – While governor of Vermont, Howard Dean (search) accepted personal pay from special interests at least five times for speeches and also received more than $60,000 in checks and pledges for his charity fund from insurers who benefited from a state tax break, according to documents and interviews.
Dean's fees and charitable donations were legal and did not have to be disclosed under Vermont law but were detailed in correspondence and tax records reviewed by The Associated Press.
The lion's share of Dean's $13,633 in personal speaking fees as governor came from a drug company that was embroiled in one of the nation's most high profile sexual harassment cases, which ultimately ended with a nearly $10 million federal penalty.
The checks and pledges totaling at least $62,500 to Dean's Vermont Computer Project (search), an initiative the governor created to donate equipment to Vermont schools, came from captive insurance and reinsurance companies, nontraditional insurers which provide health care coverage to companies in tax-friendly ways.
Dean's campaign said Friday any suggestion the payments or donations influenced his actions as governor was "laughable."
"Anyone who knows Howard Dean knows he's a straight-shooter who calls them as he sees them and nothing, aside from his interest in the best public policy, ever influenced his decisions as governor," spokesman Jay Carson said.
But many of Dean's former gubernatorial colleagues, including his successor in Vermont, said they don't accept special interest speaking fees to avoid appearances or because of legal prohibitions.
"We choose not to accept anything of value," said Abby Ottenhoff, a spokeswoman for Illinois Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search).
The charitable checks and pledges were delivered to Dean and his aides in the mid-1990s by a lobbyist for the insurers. In one letter on his official stationery, Dean wrote lobbyist John L. Primmer to tell him about the status of a state tax break for the industry and to simultaneously thank him for a personal gift.
"Both of these bills have the potential to help further opportunities in this area and bring high quality economically beneficial jobs to Vermont," Dean wrote on April 27, 1993 to Primmer, whose clients over the years included a coalition for reinsurers and the Vermont Captive Insurance Association (search).
"Thanks for the gift and your support. Please be in touch with further questions or comments," the then-governor added.
Dean's campaign said the governor does not recall what gift was referenced in the letter but said it could have been a token gift or one of several donations or checks Primmer collected to Dean's charity fund.
Primmer did not return calls to his office seeking comment Thursday or Friday.
But in a 1993 letter to Dean, Primmer wrote that two insurers were sending a gift to the governor, described only as a "package," after Dean met with them to discuss the bill that would provide new tax breaks. Dean signed that bill into law later that year.
In 1994, Primmer donated $250 to Dean's re-election campaign. And in a series of 1995 letters, Primmer passed along a $7,500 check to Dean's school fund from insurer Commercial Reinsurance Company (search), and pledges for an additional $55,000 from that company and another insurer named MEDMARC.
"We greatly appreciate the flexibility your administration and it predecessors have promoted in the regulation of insurance companies," a MEDMARC executive wrote in a "Dear Gov. Dean" letter around the time of the donations.
When asked whether the discussion of official business and private donations mixed in the correspondence might create a perception of a conflict of interest, Dean spokesman Carson replied: "As Governor he started a charity that provided hundreds of computers to the poorest kids in the state and he's not going to make any apologies for that."
Charles Lewis, head of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity (search) that studies public officials' conduct, said Friday the revelations risk tarnishing Dean's self-portrait as a political outsider.
"This is the same kind of thing that goes on in Washington, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day," Lewis said. "It's not something you would expect the reformer, outsider candidate would have in his background."
Dean's speaking fees were included in his 1998 and 1999 tax forms that the presidential hopeful voluntarily released, and he provided the names of those who paid him at the request of the AP.
The largest sum of speaking fees — $9,000 — was paid to Dean for two speeches he made in spring 1998 and spring 1999 to Astra USA, now known as AstraZeneca (search), the pharmaceutical giant that makes the popular ulcer drug Prilosec (search).
Astra was based in neighboring Massachusetts and at the time of Dean's 1998 speech had just settled a sexual harassment case with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (search) after admitting to a hostile work environment and agreeing to pay nearly $10 million to more than 70 victims.
Dean was paid $4,000 for the 1998 speech, and received $5,000 more in 1999 to speak again to Astra, according to the information Dean provided to the AP.
Dean canceled a third speech just before the 1998 election when reporters inquired about the propriety of speaking at a company involved in the harassment case.
The new information shows Dean also received speaking fees in 1998 of $1,000 from the University of Texas Science Center, $1,000 from the American Academy of Pediatrics (search) and $2,633 from the University of Arizona Foundation.
In all, Dean earned $13,633 in speaking fees while governor and another $5,000 after stepping down. The totals are far smaller than the $1 million-plus that rival Wesley Clark earned in speaking and consulting fees after retiring from the military.
Several governors told AP they decline such money or gifts for appearances sake. "The governor does not accept honoraria or gifts," said Josh Morby, spokesman for Wisconsin's Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, a Republican, also does not accept honoraria, his spokesman said. Public officials in Ohio have been prohibited by state law from accepting speaking fees since 1994, when the Ohio Senate president and other lawmakers were indicted in a controversy over speaking fees from a women's clothing retailer.
Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a Democrat, doesn't accept speaking fees, and Tennessee law prohibits its governor from accepting honoraria, spokesmen said.
And Dean's successor in Vermont, Republican Gov. James Douglas, hasn't accepted any honoraria in his first year and believes it "unlikely that he would accept honoraria to speak on a subject clearly related to his duties as governor," spokesman Jason Gibbs said.
The House and Senate have banned lawmakers from accepting honoraria in the early 1990s after controversies.