WASHINGTON—Concluding a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Vice President Dick Cheney saluted a wealthy Missourian in the audience: "The president said, `Be sure to say hi to Foxy.'"
Foxy is Sam Fox, a St. Louis businessman who's very well-known in Republican circles. Since 1993, he and his wife, Marilyn, have given more than $2 million in political contributions, nearly all of it to GOP candidates and political groups, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.
Fox also gave a $50,000 contribution in 2004 to the Swift Boat Veterans and POWs for Truth. The group ran a negative campaign against Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts during the last presidential race.
Bush nominated Fox to be ambassador to Belgium, but withdrew his name from consideration when it became apparent that he lacked the votes in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to get confirmed. But the next week, the president changed course and decided to use a special procedure known as a recess appointment to give the job to Fox, bypassing the Senate.
That angered a handful of Democratic senators, who questioned the legality of the president's move and asked the Government Accountability Office to investigate.
As he prepares to begin a new job in Brussels, the 77-year-old Fox is the latest in a long line of big-money contributors to represent the nation abroad. Since taking office in 2001, President Bush has appointed at least 43 Republican contributors to ambassadorships, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.
While the practice has decades of precedence under Republican and Democratic presidents, critics say the high-profile jobs should go to the most qualified candidates, not necessarily to those with the most money.
"You would never appoint someone to head a major corporation who has no business experience," said Steve Kashkett, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association. "You would never appoint someone to be the chief of surgery at a major hospital who has no medical experience. ... This practice hurts our credibility and effectiveness around the world."
Kashkett said his group hasn't taken an official position on Fox, but he's hoping that the United States ends its patronage system. He said the United States is "the only democratic country in the world that routinely hands out ambassadorships as rewards for political contributions or political loyalty."
In the last four decades, roughly a third of ambassadorial appointments have gone to private citizens who are big-money contributors or who lack foreign service credentials. Fox, who founded the multibillion-dollar investment firm Harbour Group, is a big donor with no diplomatic experience.
Since 1993, he and his wife have donated $650,000 to federal candidates and committees and $1.5 million to so-called Section 527 accounts and soft-money accounts of the national party, according to PoliticalMoneyLine, which tracks contributions. All of that money went to Republican candidates and causes, with one exception: $23,100 to Sen. Joseph Lieberman last year, a former Connecticut Democrat who ran and won as an independent last year.
Fox also helped recruit other contributors to Bush's presidential campaigns. He was designated one of the president's "Pioneers" in 2000 for bringing in at least $100,000 and a "Ranger" in 2004 for raising at least $200,000.
Fox declined to be interviewed for this story. But his spokesman released a statement on his behalf, in which Fox stressed his business experience as his main qualification to become an ambassador.
"In 50 years as a businessman, I've bought, built and operated plants all over the world and all across Europe," he said. "I've made more than 100 business trips to Europe and have had extensive experience dealing with governments and agencies."
Fox had no comment when asked whether political contributors should become ambassadors. "Almost anything I could say about that would sound defensive or self-serving or both," his statement said. "I'll pass."
Ambassadorial appointments are rarely controversial on Capitol Hill, though there have been exceptions.
In 1992, Kansas City businessman Donald Alexander contributed $100,000 to the Republican Party, and President George H.W. Bush nominated him to be ambassador to the Netherlands less than four months later. But the president withdrew the nomination after a senator complained about Alexander's donations to the Republican National Committee.
"Instead of withdrawing the nomination and proposing someone who would further our international ties and relationships, the administration decided to proceed with a maneuver that is deceptive at best and illegal at worst," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Without Senate confirmation, Fox can keep the job only through the end of 2008. He's expected to head to Belgium soon, but he doesn't know his exact departure date.
"That's up to the White House," he said in his statement.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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