Politics & Government

The semi-secret world of campaign bundlers

WASHINGTON — Johnny Taylor Jr. is connected.

The Charlotte businessman has friends all over the country who will hop on a plane and arrive at his house with a check for $2,300. That's the cost of having a chat in a private setting with a presidential candidate.

Taylor, a supporter of Sen. Hillary Clinton to the tune of "hundreds of thousands" of dollars, is at the heart of a growing role in the U.S. political system. He's known as a "bundler," a mega-fundraiser adept at using his network of friends and business associates to help fund a candidate's campaign.

"I not only want to raise money, but I want the candidate, Senator Clinton, to be informed about what people are really thinking about good public policy," said Taylor, an executive with InterActiveCorp., parent company to LendingTree and Ticketmaster.

Bundling is legal and all the candidates rely on volunteers who do it, but only a few presidential contenders have released their names.

Disclosure is important because these prodigious fundraisers are some of the people who will get their phone calls returned by the White House and will get chances at prestigious positions.

The Federal Election Commission is drafting new rules on bundling, due out next year, and has expressed interest in going beyond what Congress suggested -- that fundraisers be disclosed only if they are federal lobbyists.

The process has come under intense scrutiny with the news that one of Clinton's major fundraisers, Norman Hsu, raised more than $800,000 for the New York senator before he was revealed as a fugitive and charged with fraud.

Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, another Democratic candidate for president, has also gotten unwanted publicity from a bundler.

Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger and a partner were indicted in August on charges of breaking campaign laws for contributions made in 2004. They had raised $127,000 for Edwards, but are charged with reimbursing employees of their law firm, family members and others for the donations -- effectively giving the money themselves in violation of contribution limits.

The major concern with bundling is about influence.

Bundlers' work is usually closely tracked by the campaigns and "gives individuals a way to be much more important than their personal campaign contribution," said Taylor Lincoln, the research director at the Congress Watch division of Public Citizen, which discloses known bundlers on its Web site, www.whitehouseforsale.org.

Lincoln credits President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney with voluntarily disclosing their bundlers, dubbed Pioneers and Rangers.

But he notes those folks weren't forgotten. Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, says nearly 40 percent of Bush fundraisers from 2000 were rewarded with ambassadorships, jobs in the administration or seats on a federal committee or board.

"The public has no idea who the candidates are leaning on for these vast sums of money," says Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. "The person who gives $2,300 looks just like the person who has raised $200,000."

Lawrence Norton, former general counsel for the FEC, said there is much more emphasis on these "uber-fundraisers" than ever before, in part because of new restrictions in how other political committees can raise money.

"From a regulatory perspective, what you have are lots of people who are really critical to the campaign but are not part of the campaign, and are not necessarily trained or educated in terms of what they can or cannot do," said Norton, an attorney in the Washington office of Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice.

"Either they are tripping over campaign finance laws, or the campaign is exposed to criticism or potential violations because of these volunteers who are effectively their agents."

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Edwards released a list of 669 "solicitors" through the first three quarters of 2007. He releases the names of everyone who has collected money, regardless of amount.

Clinton, on the other hand, releases only those who have raised at least $100,000. So far 320 people, whom she calls HillRaisers, have done so.. Obama identifies those who have raised $50,000, or 354 people for the first three quarters of the year. The tally was compiled by Public Citizen.

"This is 100 percent about transparency and electing someone who is open and honest to the presidency; that's why we, unlike our opponents, release the names of everyone who fundraises for Senator Edwards," his spokeswoman Colleen Murray said.

Lincoln disagrees with Edwards' characterization of full disclosure because he does not reveal how much money each person is responsible for.

"You can disclose nobody or disclose everybody - they're two different ways of being opaque," he said.

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