NY Times ignored evidence that Thompson overlooked GOP wrongdoing in Senate inquiry

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

A New York Times article, which reported on Fred Thompson's leadership of a 1997 Governmental Affairs Committee investigation into campaign finance irregularities, uncritically quoted Thompson saying of the hearings, "[T]here was no way that I was going to shield any obvious problems that our side had." However, according to a New York Times article published at the time, Republicans shut down the hearings before Democrats were able to introduce evidence linking Republican lawmakers to Triad Management, a fundraising group that Democrats claimed had skirted campaign finance laws.

An August 27 New York Times article, which reported on former Sen. Fred Thompson's (R-TN) leadership of a 1997 Governmental Affairs Committee investigation into campaign finance irregularities, uncritically quoted Thompson saying of the hearings, "[T]here was no way that I was going to shield any obvious problems that our side had." However, as Media Matters for America has noted, Thompson shut down the investigation before Democrats were able to introduce evidence linking Republican lawmakers to Triad Management, a fundraising group that Democrats claimed had skirted campaign finance laws. The Times reported on the evidence when it surfaced just before the investigation was shut down.

The Times reported that Republicans criticized Thompson for "his decision to let [then-Sen. John] Glenn [D-OH] subpoena the former Republican chairman, Haley Barbour, to testify about a Hong Kong businessman's $2.1 million loan guarantee to a group with close ties to the Republican Party" and that "Mr. Thompson even joined Democrats in grilling Mr. Barbour, who had testified that he had not known the money was foreign, even though he had discussed the loan with the businessman while in Hong Kong." While Thompson's committee did hear testimony from Barbour in July 1997, on October 30, 1997 -- the day before Thompson adjourned the hearings altogether -- The New York Times reported that Senate investigators had evidence of Triad's connections to Republican lawmakers, including members of Thompson's Government Affairs Committee. The Times added that "[h]earings had been scheduled for this week before the Governmental Affairs Committee into Triad's campaign activities, but Republicans on the committee canceled them after Democratic members of the committee obtained names earlier this week of Triad's donors":

Documents released by Senate investigators today identified 20 donors to a private conservative organization that worked outside the normal political channels in ways that benefited conservative Republicans, including two members of the Senate committee investigating campaign finances.

One beneficiary was Senator Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who as a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee has been trying to persuade the Senate leadership to end the hearings that have proceeded for almost four months under the direction of Senator Fred Thompson, Republican of Tennessee.

Another committee member who benefited from the organization's activities was Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas.

Senator Nickles appeared in marketing advertisements for the organization, Triad Management Services, a consulting group that helped conservative donors make contributions outside the purview of Federal election laws. Mr. Nickles's political action committee received tens of thousands of dollars in donations in 1996 from some of Triad's biggest donors.

In Mr. Brownback's 1996 Senate race, a last-minute $400,000 television advertising blitz was paid for by Triad donors. These advertisements appeared in the closing weeks of the election and attacked his Democratic opponent as an out-of-state liberal.

[...]

Hearings had been scheduled for this week before the Governmental Affairs Committee into Triad's campaign activities, but Republicans on the committee canceled them after Democratic members of the committee obtained names earlier this week of Triad's donors.

Other media outlets also reported that Thompson canceled the hearings just as they were about to turn to testimony about Triad. For instance, an October 30, 1997, Roll Call article reported:

Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn) is refusing to give Democrats their own day of hearings to air allegations of GOP fundraising abuses, saying they blew their chance when Democratic staffers allegedly obtained bank records improperly.

The bank records reveal the names of donors to two non-profit groups, Citizens for Reform and Citizens for the Republican Education Fund, which funded TV ads attacking Democratic candidates in the last election cycle. The contributions were solicited by Triad Management Inc., a GOP consulting firm that has come under heavy scrutiny by Democratic investigators.

One GOP committee aide said the manner in which Democratic staff obtained the records from Crestar Bank was "one of the most outrageous, unethical series of events we've seen to date."

The GOP aide added, "The chairman is going to have something to say about it... We're going to ask that something be done to the staff person involved in it."

In a letter to Thompson on Tuesday, Governmental Affairs ranking member John Glenn (D-Ohio) deplored "the false assertion that my staff has somehow acted improperly in regard to a subpoena for certain bank records of Triad Management. The fact is that they acted properly throughout."

Glenn has said that Thompson originally agreed to let him have three days of hearings, in addition to the three days Democrats controlled in August, to delve into GOP fundraising abuses. But GOP aides have strongly denied that such an agreement was ever made.

On November 1, 1997, the day after Thompson suspended the proceedings entirely, as Media Matters has noted, the Los Angeles Times reported on Democrats' suspicion that the hearings had been ended just in time to prevent examination of Brownback's and Nickles' connections to Triad. From the Los Angeles Times article:

Although Thompson said he reserved the right to resume hearings before the committee's Dec. 31 cutoff date if dramatic new evidence turns up, Democrats noted the suspension came as they were about to examine how two Republicans on the panel had benefited from secret donations given to a conservative consulting group.

Democrats had planned to call witnesses to show that the group, Triad Management Services, accepted donations totaling $400,000 to help Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) win election last year. Triad also paid for advertisements to benefit Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), according to documents.

Although no illegalities were alleged, the Triad episode was to demonstrate how Republicans as well as Democrats had taken advantage of private citizen groups -- with no contribution limits or disclosure requirements -- to finance campaign activities with no public reporting required and no limit on contributions.

Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview Friday: "Obviously, they didn't want the Triad evidence to come out. But we'll include it in the final report."

A Boston Globe article from November 1, 1997, reporting on Thompson's cancellation of the remainder of the hearings also noted the connection and further noted that even though Thompson had canceled the day of hearings he had promised to Democrats, "continuing the Senate hearings likely would allow Democrats to control the agenda at some point." From the Globe:

On the surface, it may seem surprising that Republicans don't want to continue an investigation that has focused on Clinton. But continuing the Senate hearings likely would allow Democrats to control the agenda at some point and present evidence about GOP fund-raising practices.

For example, the most outspoken advocate for ending the hearings is Senator Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, who serves on the committee. Democrats have spent months accumulating documents about an organization called Triad Management that is tied to Nickles. Democrats said Triad took anonymous donations and funneled the money into advertisements that helped Republicans. Democrats have said the operation skirts campaign-finance laws and have noted Nickles once filmed an advertisement praising the group. Triad officials have denied any wrongdoing.

A Knight-Ridder Newspapers article from the same day reported that Democrats said they were preparing to introduce information that might have damaged Nickles:

Nickles may have found himself under the spotlight if the hearings had continued and started examining independent groups, as Democrats wanted.

Democrats said Friday that the hearings were stopped just as they were about to start turning the spotlight on campaign spending by independent groups, including groups that help Republicans. The DNC [Democratic National Committee] issued a statement charging that Republicans were blocking the committee Democrats from turning the focus to a pro-Republican organization with ties to Nickles.

By 1998, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) "had concluded that Triad had violated federal campaign laws by failing to register as a federal political committee," according to Roll Call (subscription required). A December 5, 2002, Kansas City Star article reported that the FEC found that "Brownback's in-laws, John and Ruth Stauffer of Topeka, violated federal election laws by funneling excessive campaign donations to him in 1996" through Triad and political action committees working with Triad. The FEC also ordered Brownback's campaign to refund to the U.S. Treasury $19,000 in over-the-limit contributions. A Media Matters search of the Lexis-Nexis database did not find any reports indicating that Nickles' reported involvement with Triad resulted in legal action.

From the August 27 edition of The New York Times:

But over dinner, Mr. Thompson told his aides that he was considering quitting the investigation, according to participants. He was taking hits both from Democrats, who did not believe that he meant his promise to examine fund-raising by both parties, and from Republicans who were beginning to worry that he did.

From on high, the majority leader, Senator Trent Lott, was trying to limit the investigation to the White House. From across the aisle, Senator John Glenn, the panel's Democratic vice-chairman, was fighting to limit the investigatory budget. "He's acting like the White House's defense counsel," Mr. Thompson fumed to an aide.

More than 20 years after Watergate, a different image of Mr. Thompson was emerging -- jousting with Republican leadership even as he leveled the same accusation at Mr. Glenn that had once been leveled at him.

For all the back-room maneuvering, the Watergate investigation was viewed as a model of bipartisanship. Mr. Thompson recognized, he said in the interview, that no finding of Democratic wrongdoing would be credible unless this investigation, too, was seen as fair. In Watergate, he had pressed to look beyond Mr. Nixon; now, he said, he would give Democrats a shot.

"I wasn't trying to equalize things -- I thought the heavy end of the stick, you know, ought to be reserved for Clinton, for sure," he said. "But there was no way that I was going to shield any obvious problems that our side had."

Ultimately, after receiving general assurances from Mr. Lott, Mr. Thompson decided against quitting. He did not want a public fight with his party, he said.

Aides say the senator had another motivation, partly a legacy of revelations of the Nixon campaign's illegal use of campaign cash. He hoped the investigation would galvanize support for campaign finance reform stalled in Congress.

By that measure, the hearings were effective. The legislation passed, in 2001, and a number of Democratic fund-raisers eventually were convicted.

But many Republicans labeled the hearings a bust. They did not share Mr. Thompson's zeal for campaign-finance reform. And they felt that in his quest for bipartisanship, Mr. Thompson had taken his eye off the prime target: the Clinton administration.

For the party leadership, Mr. Thompson's fatal lack of focus was crystallized by his decision to let Mr. Glenn subpoena the former Republican chairman, Haley Barbour, to testify about a Hong Kong businessman's $2.1 million loan guarantee to a group with close ties to the Republican Party.

Mr. Thompson even joined Democrats in grilling Mr. Barbour, who had testified that he had not known the money was foreign, even though he had discussed the loan with the businessman while in Hong Kong.

Posted In
Government, Ethics, The Senate
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.