Political Donations Become a Family Affair

On Dec. 12, 2003, Maryland businessman Raymond Starkes III gave $2,000 to the campaign of Rep. Bennie Thompson (search), D-Miss. That same day, Starkes' son -- a college student more than 1,000 miles away at the University of Miami -- also made a $2,000 donation to Thompson's campaign.

Similarly, businessman Alan Meltzer gave $2,000 to Rep. Peter Deutsch (search), D-Fla., on Sept. 18, 2003, the same day his son and daughter, both college students, made identical $2,000 donations to Deutsch's campaign.

And Bates College student Trent Lierman gave $2,000 to presidential hopeful Howard Dean (search), whose national finance chairman was Trent's father, Terry Lierman (search), the recently elected chairman of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Those college donors were not alone: A review of the latest Federal Election Commission filings showed that dozens of contributors who listed their occupations as "student" gave $1,000 or more to a campaign in the 2004 cycle. In many of those cases, parents of the student donor had also given $1,000 or more to the same campaigns as their children.

Some campaign finance watchdogs said that contributions from children could let political donors exceed a $2,000 limit on the amount of money that one person can give to a campaign.

But Starkes, Meltzer and Lierman all said that their children's donations were made of their own volition and with their own money. Starkes said it should not be surprising that children's giving would mirror that of their parents.

"Normally, if someone's parents are Democrats, his children are going to be Democrats and if their parents are Republicans they are going to be Republicans," Starkes said.

FEC spokesman Bob Biersack said there are no laws that prevent students or minors from contributing to campaigns "as long as the funds can be shown to be the funds of the (student)" and "under the control of the (student)."

Still, critics are skeptical.

"I've seen contributions made by kids as young as 12 years old, who, one would think, wouldn't have the money to give to a politician or who obviously wouldn't care about the politician or the campaign that they were donating to," said Craig Holman, a campaign-finance lobbyist with Public Citizen (search), a nonprofit group that monitors money in politics.

Giving to campaigns through children is "a common practice" that is used to elude contribution limits, Holman said, "and it is a problem that is not addressed by the FEC."

But Steve Weiss, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics (search), another group that tracks political donations, grudgingly conceded that student political donors could be using their own money.

"In well-to-do families, children could have that kind of money to donate to a political campaign," Weiss said.

Biersack said the FEC investigates when it gets a complaint that contributions from family members are used to skirt limits on individuals.

He said there have been at least six cases where the FEC has found violations that involved excessive giving through children. The most recent example was a case involving Stewart Bainum, a former Maryland state senator and who was fined $4,000 in 1996 for contributions made through his infant son, Biersack said.

College students gave to both Republican and Democratic causes in the 2004 election cycle, according to an analysis of FEC campaign finance records.

The majority of donations were on the order of several hundred dollars to buy tickets for Vote for Change, a rock concert to benefit Democrat-leaning America Coming Together (search). But all of the $1,000-plus donors sent their money directly to political campaigns.

And that is their right, said Terry Lierman, who said he did not prod his son to donate to the Dean campaign. Terry Lierman said Trent was campus coordinator for Dean at Bates College and that he also traveled to Wisconsin to campaign.

His son "did not just cut a check," the elder Lierman said. Trent made the donation to show his admiration for Dean's anti-war message, his father said.

"Trent doesn't do anything he doesn't want to," said Terry Lierman. "It's not my money, it's his."

Capital News Service contributed to this report.