The real scandal in the Packwood diaries


Washington -- THE DIARIES of Bob Packwood reveal a sordid personal story that the public was never meant to hear.

But the diaries also tell another story that was never intended for citizens to know. It's the story of how our elected leaders in Washington are perpetrating a giant fraud on the people in order to raise and spend tens of millions of dollars in corrupting campaign contributions.

These donations, as large as $100,000, $200,000, even $2 million, come from corporations, unions and wealthy individuals. They are used to buy influence over government decisions of enormous consequence, often at the expense of taxpayers.

During the last election alone, Republicans raised more than $45 million in these funds while the Democrats raised $40 million. It's known as soft money. But it's a con game. Here's how it works.

Corporations and labor unions are prohibited from making contributions to support presidential and congressional campaigns. There are also limits on what individuals and political action committees can give. The law limits the amounts parties can raise, contribute and spend on behalf of federal candidates.

To evade these ceilings, federal politicians -- the president and members of Congress -- join with party operatives and big contributors to create a fantasy world. The Federal Election Commission, which winks and nods at the game, assists them.

In this fantasy world, contributors, solicited by elected officials and their agents, give huge donations, which are not legal in federal campaigns, to national and state political parties. These funds are supposed to be spent only on "general" party activities, like get-out-the-vote drives, and are not to be spent to benefit individual federal candidates.

But in reality, this is a kind of money-laundering operation. The money is run through the parties to try to make it look clean when in fact it is being given and used to help federal candidates.

In what he thought were his private diaries, Mr. Packwood revealed the soft money con for what it is.

He writes about a meeting he had with Sen. Phil Gramm in the spring of 1992. Mr. Packwood was then running for re-election and Mr. Gramm was head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party's fund-raising arm for Senate candidates. Mr. Packwood himself had once led the committee.

Mr. Gramm is described as talking about putting $100,000 into Oregon to support his colleague's campaign. It was soft money.

"What was said in that room would be enough to convict us all of something," Mr. Packwood wrote. The diary adds that Mr. Gramm "says, 'Now, of course, you know there can't be any legal connection between this money and Senator Packwood, but we know that it will be used for his benefit.' "

Mr. Packwood continues, "I think it's a felony, I'm not sure. This is an area of the law I don't want to know."

Mr. Packwood altered this portion of his diary when he turned it over to the Ethics Committee. After this was discovered, he said the initial entry was inaccurate.

The committee, meanwhile, found that the diary raised questions about possible violations of campaign finance laws and asked Mr. Gramm to respond.

Mr. Gramm said that he did nothing improper and that the money went for party voter turnout and registration.

But let's be real. The Senate Republican fund-raising arm has only one purpose: to elect Republicans to the Senate. It raises millions of dollars in soft money that cannot legally be used in Senate elections, and it's not distributing this money to elect state and local candidates.

This is not a one-party problem. The three most powerful people in politics today, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole, are involved in raising soft money. The soft money con is the worst campaign finance abuse today. It is corrupting our government and must be ended.

Fred Wertheimer is the former president of Common Cause.

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