WASHINGTON – Democrats John Kerry (search) and John Edwards (search) are fond of telling voters they are spurning special-interest money during their White House bids, but voters beware. Their boasts hardly tell the whole story.
Sen. Kerry, who says he hasn't taken a dime of political action committee money for his presidential campaign, in fact ran a tax-exempt political committee that collected nearly a half million dollars directly from companies and labor unions just before those types of donations were outlawed in late 2002, tax records show.
Many of the biggest donors to that effort came from companies with direct interests before Kerry's Senate committee, and the Massachusetts Democrat spent much of the money laying groundwork in early presidential primary states, the records show.
Sen. Edwards, who tells voters he rejects donations to his presidential campaign from Washington lobbyists, took one donation in 2002 directly from a lobbying firm. He also collected more than $80,000 from people who aren't formally registered as lobbyists but nonetheless work for some of Washington's powerhouse firms.
Edwards also has accepted more than $150,000 worth of flights aboard the corporate jets of special interests, a helpful perk for a candidate crisscrossing the country that also allows the corporate provider to bend the ear of a White House aspirant.
"They are both in up to their necks with special interest money," said Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington watchdog group that recently published "The Buying of the President 2004," which tracks the sources of political money for the presidential hopefuls.
"This rhetoric has a rather hollow ring to it. It is hypocritical. They are splitting hairs when they say either, 'I don't take lobbyists' money' or 'I don't take from PACs' when both have received millions from special interests anyway," Lewis said.
Edwards' campaign declined Sunday to discuss the 2002 donation from a lobbying firm. Edwards' presidential fund-raising report "confirms Senator Edwards' policy of never having taken a dime from Washington lobbyists. Senator Edwards is proud of having the strongest campaign finance reform proposals of all the presidential candidates," spokeswoman Jennifer Palmieri said.
As his stock has risen after his surprise wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry has increasingly portrayed himself as free from special interest money.
"I'm the only person in the United States Senate who has been elected four times who has voluntarily refused to ever take one dime of political action committee, special interest money in my elections," Kerry said just last week.
While technically correct, his boast omits the fact that he was one of the largest recipients of donations from individual lawyers and lobbyists among all senators and that he created a vehicle in 2002 to collect large checks directly from companies, labor unions and other special interests on the eve of his presidential bid.
Kerry collected more than $470,000 directly from companies and unions in 2002 for his Citizen Soldier Fund, and spent large amounts of it sowing goodwill in key primary states just before Congress banned the use of such "soft money" donations, according to records his group filed with the IRS.
More than $100,000 of those donations came from telecommunications and Internet companies that have had a direct interest in the work of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on which Kerry serves.
For instance, nearly every major cellular phone company donated to Kerry's committee, including AT&T Wireless ($7,500), Nextel ($5,000), Verizon Wireless ($5,000), T-Mobile ($5,000), and Cingular ($5,000). The head of Internet publishing giant International Data Group gave $50,000, while the chairman of the Google Web site chipped in another $25,000.
Kerry turned those donations right around, distributing money for the fall 2002 elections to primary battleground states where his presidential campaign would eventually need help. He gave $40,000 to the Iowa Democratic Party, $39,650 to the New Hampshire Democratic Party, $20,000 to the Florida Democratic Party and $3,000 to the South Carolina Democratic Party.
Edwards' claim that he hasn't accepted money from Washington lobbyists is technically true in that no person currently registered with Congress as a lobbyist has appeared yet on the donor rolls of his campaign.
But in 2002, Edwards created a tax-exempt political committee just like Kerry. The group, New American Optimists, reported in October 2002 a $3,333.50 donation from Ungaretti & Harris, a lobbying firm whose clients range from AirTran airlines to the Arthur Andersen accounting firm, according to its lobbying disclosure report to Congress.
That same committee collected hundreds of thousand of dollars from other special interests, ranging from $10,000 from AT&T to $550,000 from movie producer Steve Bing.
Furthermore, non-registered employees of Washington lobbying firms have given $82,000 directly to Edwards' campaign, according to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records conducted by Lewis' Center for Public Integrity.
That money includes $2,000 from Vernon Jordan, long regarded as one of Washington's pre-eminent power brokers, as well as donations from employees of such famous Washington lobbying firms as Hogan & Hartson, Patton Boggs, Arnold & Porter and Skadden Arps.
The North Carolina Democrat also has another special interest venue. He has flown across the country in corporate-owned planes — taking $138,000 worth of flights with the Dallas-based Baron and Budd law firm and at least $19,000 in flights with the Archer Daniels Midland agricultural company, his campaign reports show.