WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) said Thursday his intervention on a legislative matter that affected the nation's most expensive highway project had nothing to do with an insurer who benefited from his action and later gave him tens of thousands of dollars in donations.
Responding to an Associated Press report Wednesday about the donations, Massachusetts Sen. Kerry said he had worked to block the legislation because it would have cost Boston's "Big Dig" (search) project $150 million. The legislation in 2000 aimed to close a loophole that had allowed the insurer to divert millions of federal dollars from the project.
The entire Massachusetts delegation "fought to hold onto $150 million for the Big Dig, which is the most important single project in Massachusetts and New England, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the industry," Kerry said.
He said he had opposed the insurance industry on other legislative issues including bankruptcy changes and terrorism insurance.
In the two years after the Big Dig issue, American International Group (search) paid Kerry's way on a trip to Vermont and donated at least $30,000 to a tax-exempt group Kerry used to set up his presidential campaign. Company executives also donated $18,000 to his Senate and presidential campaigns, according to records obtained by AP.
Some government watchdogs said Kerry's story is a textbook case of Washington special interest politicking that he rails against on the presidential trail.
"The idea that Kerry has not helped or benefited from a specific special interest, which he has said, is utterly absurd," said Charles Lewis, head of the Center for Public Integrity (search) that just published a book on political donations to the presidential candidates.
"Anyone who gets millions of dollars over time, and thousands of dollars from specific donors, knows there's a symbiotic relationship," Lewis said. "He needs the donors' money. The donors need favors. Welcome to Washington. That is how it works."
The documents obtained by AP detail Kerry's effort as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee to persuade committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., to drop legislation that would have stripped $150 million from the Big Dig project and ended the insurance funding loophole.
The Massachusetts Democrat actually was critical of the loophole but didn't want money stripped from the project because it would hurt his constituents who needed the Boston project finished, Cutter said.
When the "AIG investment scheme (came) to light, John Kerry called for public hearings to investigate the parties involved and the legality of the investment practices. However, he firmly believed cutting funding for the Big Dig was not the answer," Cutter said.
Instead of McCain's bluntly worded legislation, Kerry asked for a committee hearing in May 2000. Kerry thanked McCain at the start of the hearing for dropping his legislation and an AIG executive was permitted to testify that he believed the company's work for the Big Dig was a good thing even though it was criticized by federal auditors.
"From the perspective of public and worker safety and cost control, AIG's insurance program has been a success," AIG executive Richard Thomas testified.
Asked why Kerry would subsequently accept a trip and money from AIG in 2001 and 2002 if he was concerned by the investment scheme, Cutter replied: "Any contributions AIG made to the senator's campaign came years after the investigation."
The New York-based insurer, one of the world's largest, declined to comment on its donations to Kerry, simply stating, "AIG never requested any assistance from Senator Kerry concerning the insurance we provided the Big Dig."
The Big Dig project has become a symbol of government contracting gone awry, known for its huge cost overruns that now total several billion dollars, and its admissions of mismanagement.
During the 1990s, Sens. Kerry and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., helped win new federal funding for the project as its costs skyrocketed and threatened to burden the state's government. In 1998, Kerry was credited with winning $100 million in new federal funding.
But in 1999, Transportation Department auditors discovered that Big Dig managers had overpaid $129.8 million to AIG for worker compensation and liability insurance that wasn't needed, then allowed the insurer to keep the money in a trust and invest it in the market. The government alleged AIG kept about half of the profits it made from the investments, providing the other half to the project.
Outraged by the revelations, McCain submitted legislation that would have stripped $150 million from the Big Dig and banned the practice of allowing an insurer to invest and profit from excessive premiums paid with government money.
"Any refunds of insurance premiums or reserve amounts, including interest, that exceed a project's liabilities shall be immediately returned to the federal government," McCain's legislation said.
But Kerry and Kennedy intervened, and McCain withdrew the legislation in 2000 in favor of the hearing. A Senate Commerce Committee aide, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said McCain dropped the provision because the Massachusetts delegation's opposition threatened a broader highway safety bill.
At that hearing, the Transportation's Department inspector general made a renewed plea for a permanent federal policy banning the overpayment of insurance premiums and subsequent investment for profit — what McCain had proposed and Kerry helped kill.
"The policy is needed to ensure that projects do not attempt to draw down federal funds for investment purposes under the guise that they are needed to pay insurance claims," the inspector general told senators.
In September 2001, AIG paid an estimated $540 in travel expenses to cover Kerry's costs for a speech in Burlington, Vt., according to a Senate report filed by Kerry.
A few months later in December 2001, several AIG executives gave maximum $1,000 donations to Kerry's Senate campaign on the same day. The donations totaled $9,700 and were followed by several thousand dollars more over the next two years.
Kerry wasn't the only committee member to get AIG donations. In 1999 and early 2000 as the Big Dig issue was pending, McCain received several thousand dollars in donations from executives of the insurer, the records show.
In spring 2002, AIG donated $10,000 to a new tax-exempt group Kerry formed, the Citizen Soldier Fund, to lay groundwork for his presidential campaign. Later that same year, AIG gave two more donations of $10,000 each to the same group, making it one of the largest corporate donors to Kerry's group.
The insurer wasn't the only company connected to the Big Dig to donate to Kerry's new group. Two construction companies on the project — Modern Continental Group and Jay Cashman Construction — each donated $25,000, IRS records show.