Fred D. Thompson, the former Tennessee senator campaigning for president as a "pro-life" Republican, accepted a lobbying assignment from a family-planning group to persuade the first Bush White House to ease a controversial abortion restriction, according to a 1991 document and five people familiar with the matter.
A spokesman for the former senator denied that Thompson did the lobbying work. But minutes of a 1991 board meeting of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Association show that the group hired Thompson that year.
His task was to urge the administration of President George H.W. Bush to withdraw or relax a rule that barred abortion counseling at clinics that receive federal money, according to the records and the five people who worked on the matter.
The abortion "gag rule" was a major political flashpoint at the time. Thompson's lobbying would clash directly with the anti-abortion movement that he is now trying to rally behind his campaign for president. Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo adamantly denied that Thompson worked for the family-planning group. "Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period," he said in an e-mail.
In a telephone interview, he added: "There's no documents to prove it, there's no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it, says it didn't happen."
In a separate interview, John Sununu, the White House official whom Thompson was hired to contact, said he had no memory of any lobbying and doubted it took place.
But Judith DeSarno, who was president of the family-planning association in 1991, said Thompson lobbied for the group for several months.
Minutes of the board's meeting of Sept. 14, 1991, a copy of which DeSarno gave to the Los Angeles Times, say that DeSarno "reported that the Association had hired Fred Thompson, Esq., as counsel to aid us in discussions with the Administration" on the abortion-counseling rule.
Former Rep. Michael Barnes of Maryland, a colleague at the lobbying and law firm where Thompson worked, said DeSarno had asked him to recommend someone for the lobbying work, and that he had suggested Thompson. He said it was "absolutely bizarre" for Thompson to deny that he lobbied against the abortion-counseling rule.
"I talked to him while he was doing it, and I talked to [DeSarno] about the fact that she was very pleased with the work that he was doing for her organization," said Barnes, a Democrat. "I have strong, total recollection of that. This is not something I dreamed up or she dreamed up. This is fact."
DeSarno said Thompson reported to her, after being hired, that he had held multiple conversations about the abortion "gag rule" with Sununu, who was then the White House chief of staff and the president's point man on the abortion rule.
Thompson kept her updated on his progress, she said, in telephone conversations and over meals at Washington restaurants. At one of the meals, she recalled, Thompson re-enacted a cowboy death scene from one of his movies. She also remembered him telling her that Sununu had just given him tickets for a VIP tour of the White House.
Sununu said in a telephone interview: "I don't recall him ever lobbying me on that at all. I don't think that ever happened. In fact, I know that never happened." He added that he had "absolutely no idea" whether Thompson had met with anybody else at the White House but said it would have been a waste of time, given the president's opposition to abortion rights.
In response to Sununu's denial, DeSarno said Thompson "owes NFPRHA a bunch of money" if he never talked to him, as he said he had.
At the time, Thompson was a lobbyist and lawyer "of counsel" to Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, a Washington firm. DeSarno said the family-planning association paid the firm for Thompson's work. Marc Fleischaker, the chairman of Arent Fox, declined to comment.
Corallo, the spokesman for Thompson, said in an e-mail that Thompson "may have been consulted by one of [his] firm's partners who represented this group in 1991." Corallo said it was "not unusual for one lawyer on one side of an issue to be asked to give advice to colleagues for clients who engage in conduct or activities with which they personally disagree."
In a videotaped message to the National Right To Life Convention in Kansas City in June, Thompson said the group's issues were "ever more profound to me as the years go by." A senator from December 1994 to January 2003, Thompson voted along anti-abortion lines, but his statements occasionally have raised questions about his commitment to the cause.
On Fox News in June, he was asked why he checked a box on a questionnaire in his 1994 Senate campaign beside a statement saying that abortion "should be legal in all circumstances for the first three months." "I don't remember that box," he said. "You know, it was a long time ago, and I don't know if I filled it out or my staff, based on what they thought my position was, filled it out."
The Tennessean newspaper reported that Thompson, when filling out a 1996 Christian Coalition survey, marked himself as "opposed" to a constitutional amendment protecting "the sanctity of human life." The newspaper said he included a handwritten notation saying: "I do not believe abortion should be criminalized. This battle will be won in the hearts and souls of the American people."
But in recent weeks, Thompson has described himself as fundamentally "pro-life," saying the issue has "meant a little more to me" since he viewed the sonogram of his now-3-year-old daughter.
Best known for playing a district attorney on NBC's Law & Order, Thompson worked as a lobbyist over nearly three decades, both before and after his Senate term.
The abortion "gag rule" had been upheld by the Supreme Court earlier in 1991 and was eliminated in 1993 by President Bill Clinton on his third day in office.
DeSarno and others said the family-planning group hired Thompson shortly after the Supreme Court upheld the rule. That ruling led to a protracted tussle between Bush and the Congress.
In addition to Barnes and DeSarno, three other people said they recalled Thompson lobbying against the "gag rule" on behalf of the family-planning association.
"We were looking, of course, for a Republican who might have some inroads to the White House at that time," said Susan Cohen, a member of the association's board of directors in 1991.
DeSarno's main ally in lobbying on the rule was the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "I definitely recall her reaching out to [Thompson] and engaging him in some way," said Bill Hamilton, then-director of Planned Parenthood's Washington office.
Sarah Szanton, who worked for DeSarno as director of government relations for the family-planning association, said that she, too, recalled that Thompson "consulted on our behalf against the gag rule."
Michael Finnegan writes for the Los Angles Times.