Newsweek ignored evidence that Thompson overlooked GOP wrongdoing in Senate inquiry

››› ››› RYAN CHIACHIERE

An article in the latest issue of Newsweek reported on Fred Thompson's leadership of a 1997 investigation into campaign finance irregularities, asserting that "Thompson wound up losing control of the investigation, and the support of his own party," and that "Thompson has said he wanted to make sure the inquiry was fair, and not just a Republican hunting party that would be viewed with suspicion by the public." But Thompson reportedly shut down the investigation before Democrats were able to introduce evidence linking Republican lawmakers to a fundraising group that was found to have skirted campaign finance laws.

An article in the September 10 issue of Newsweek magazine about former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-TN), who, on September 6, announced he is running for president, reported that a 1997 Senate Governmental Affairs Committee investigation into campaign finance irregularities led by Thompson "fizzled and eventually shut down; Thompson was a near-pariah among some Senate Republicans." The article also asserted that "Thompson wound up losing control of the investigation, and the support of his own party, when the committee turned its attention to Republican campaign abuses as well," and that "Thompson has said he wanted to make sure the inquiry was fair, and not just a Republican hunting party that would be viewed with suspicion by the public." But Thompson reportedly shut down the investigation before Democrats were able to introduce evidence linking Republican lawmakers to Triad Management, a fundraising group that Democrats claimed -- and the Federal Election Commission (FEC) later agreed -- had skirted campaign finance laws.

Media Matters for America has previously noted evidence that Thompson prematurely shut down the hearings to avoid damaging Republican lawmakers by allowing the Triad evidence to be presented. An article in the June 25 edition of Newsweek that cited the hearings as evidence that Thompson "was willing to buck his party" similarly ignored his handling of Triad, as Media Matters noted.

While Thompson's committee did hear testimony from former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour in July 1997, on October 30, 1997 -- the day before Thompson adjourned the hearings -- The New York Times reported (subscription required) that Senate investigators had found evidence of Triad's connections to Republican lawmakers, including members of Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee. The Times added: "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":

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.

As Media Matters has noted, on November 1, 1997, the day after the suspension of the proceedings, 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:

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 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 Nexis database did not find any reports indicating that Nickles' reported involvement with Triad resulted in legal action.

From the September 10 issue of Newsweek:

Though he'd been in the Senate only a few years, in 1997 Thompson was picked to lead a major investigation into Democratic fund-raising abuses during the 1996 presidential campaign. Republican leaders dreamed of calling top White House aides -- and maybe even Bill Clinton and Al Gore -- to testify about big checks from shady Chinese businessmen and rich donors buying pajama parties in the Lincoln Bedroom. GOP leaders saw Thompson as the perfect master of ceremonies for what they envisioned would be a C-Span skewering.

It didn't turn out that way. Thompson wound up losing control of the investigation, and the support of his own party, when the committee turned its attention to Republican campaign abuses as well. Thompson has said he wanted to make sure the inquiry was fair, and not just a Republican hunting party that would be viewed with suspicion by the public. But Republicans thought he was a weak chairman who was outmaneuvered by committee Democrats. The investigation fizzled and eventually shut down; Thompson was a near pariah among some Senate Republicans. Trent Lott was so furious at his friend that he stopped speaking to him. Letters in Thompson's archives show that he put in several requests for a seat on the Senate intelligence committee, but Lott blocked them.

Posted In
Government, Ethics, The Senate
Network/Outlet
Newsweek
Stories/Interests
2008 Elections
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