WASHINGTON – John Kerry (search) took a small amount of political action committee money during a race for the House three decades ago, and later collected more than $120,000 in speaking fees from companies and lobbying groups as a new senator, records show.
Between 1985 and 1990, when Congress outlawed speaking fees, Kerry pocketed annual amounts slightly under the limits for speaking fees by lawmakers. Unlike many colleagues, he donated a speaking fee to charity only once, according to annual financial disclosure reports reviewed by The Associated Press.
The fees came from interests ranging from Democratic groups and unions to oil companies and the liquor lobby.
One of the companies to pay Kerry $1,000 for a speech in 1987, Miami-based Metalbanc, was later indicted, along with two executives, on charges it helped the Cali drug cartel (search) in Colombia launder money in the United States. The charges eventually were dropped because the firm was defunct.
At the time of the 1987 speech to Metalbanc (search), Kerry was chairman of the Senate subcommittee that investigated drug trafficking and money laundering.
Kerry, now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said he didn't learn about the drug connection to the company or its executives, who also gave him political donations, until The Boston Globe informed him of it in 1996. He donated several thousand dollars to charities to make amends.
Kerry's ethics reports show he made more than 90 paid speeches between 1985, when he first took office, and 1990, when Congress began the move to end honoraria.
The senator's campaign said he accepted the speaking fees, but also gave several speeches a year for free.
Kerry said he refrained from accepting money from organizations that appeared before his Senate committees. He said he stopped taking speaker fees before Congress enacted its ban because he wanted to avoid the appearance of money in politics.
"I personally stopped accepting any honoraria because I came to think it was inappropriate and I stopped voluntarily before it became the law," Kerry said at a press conference Monday.
Kerry has railed against the influence of special interest money on the presidential campaign trail and frequently boasts he has never taken a dime from PACs, the donating arms of special interest groups, since he joined the Senate.
But records from his unsuccessful race for the House in 1972 show Kerry collected about $20,000 from PACs, most of them associated with labor unions. For instance, the AFL-CIO's PAC gave him $3,000, and the railway clerks', autoworkers' and state, county and municipal workers' PACs donated $500 apiece.
Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter confirmed Kerry took the PAC money in 1972, and another small amount in 1982 when he ran for Massachusetts lieutenant governor, before abandoning such donations starting with his 1984 run for the Senate.
"In his first public race 32 years ago, John Kerry took money from autoworkers, teachers, electricians, and Democratic groups that account for 5 percent of the money he raised in a losing House race," the spokeswoman said. "That was 32 years ago. The difference now is Bush doesn't go 32 minutes without taking PAC money."
When Kerry joined the Senate in 1985, senators could still accept speaking fees but were forced to abide by annual limits, which ranged from $26,568 to $35,800.
A number of veteran lawmakers often collected more than $100,000 in a single year but had to give everything over the limit to charity. For instance, former House Ways and Means committee chairman Dan Rostenskowski once donated $155,000 of his speaking fees in one year to charity.
And Sen. John Heinz, R-Pa., the late husband of Kerry's wife, Teresa, donated all $12,000 in speaking fees he made in 1986.
Kerry reported donating a speaking fee to charity only once, when he was paid $2,000 in 1988 to speak to the RJR Nabisco tobacco and food conglomerate, his reports state.
A longtime federal election regulator said Kerry's extensive speaking efforts after he arrived in Washington followed a path taken by many new lawmakers who were not wealthy. With congressional salaries half what they are today, many lawmakers pressed to find outside income from special interests.
"Members were often pulled almost like a magnet into a circle of lobbyists who were very willing to pay large honoraria for them to give a brief speech or a talk to their organization or group," said Kent Cooper, former public disclosure chief for the Federal Election Commission who now runs a Web site that studies political donations and lobbying.
"This provided instant cash to a member and at the same time built a relationship with that lobbyist or organization," Cooper said.
In 1985, Kerry's freshman year in the Senate, he supplemented his $75,000 salary with $19,480 in speaking fees. The next year the fees grew to $22,725.
Kerry's paid speaking engagements included several traditional Democratic constituencies, like the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers' union; law firms and the St. Louis Women's Democratic Committee.
Kerry also earned handsomely from some of Washington's most famous lobbies as well as corporate America.
For instance, oil giant Chevron paid him $2,000 in 1986 for participating in a round-table discussion. Large financial companies, among them Paine Webber, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, also paid to hear Kerry speak, as did the Chicago Board of Trade and defense contractors such as Allied Signal and Textron.
Kerry also spoke for pay to the National Restaurant Association ($1,000 in 1985), the National Association of Independent Insurers ($1,000 in 1986), the American Bankers Association ($2,000 in 1986) and the National Association of Manufacturers ($1,000 in 1986).
The Distilled Spirits Council, which paid Kerry $2,000 for a speech in 1987, said such engagements gave a chance for the liquor lobby to bend the ears of policy-makers. "When lawmakers speak with us, there's an exchange of views and they come away with more information about what's important to our industry," said Frank Coleman, the council's senior vice president.