Politics & Government

Kentucky rep's votes on Cuba show the power of money

WASHINGTON — Supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba have contributed $12,000 to Rep. Ed Whitfield since 2004 as part of a largely successful, multimillion-dollar effort to convince lawmakers to block efforts to weaken sanctions against the island, a new report shows.

Up until July 2004, the Kentucky lawmaker voted repeatedly to repeal the travel ban and ease relations with Cuba, according to a report by Public Campaign, a nonprofit Washington-based organization that focuses on campaign reform. Later that month, Whitfield, R-Hopkinsville, received thousands in donations from groups opposed to easing sanctions. He has since consistently voted to uphold the sanctions.

"The pressure they get to raise money plays heavier in their decisions than it ought to," said David Donnelly, the national campaigns director for Public Campaign. "We think this is a damning pattern. We think these are good people caught in a bad system. If members of Congress have to spend too much time raising money, they have to listen to people who give money."

Whitfield is not alone. In several cases, members of Congress who had supported easing sanctions against Cuba changed their position — and got donations from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee and its donors.

All told, the political action committee and its contributors have given $10.77 million nationwide to nearly 400 candidates and members of Congress, the report says.

The contributions include more than $850,000 to 53 Democrats in the House of Representatives who sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi earlier this month opposing any change to U.S.-Cuba policy. The average signer, the report says, received $16,344.

The top five recipients of the embargo supporters' cash: Miami's three Cuban-American Republican members of Congress, 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain and New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, whose parents fled Cuba before his birth. The report found that at least 18 House members — including several from agriculture-rich districts — received campaign contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee or its donors and switched their positions on Cuba, from voting in favor of easing travel restrictions to voting against any efforts to soften the embargo.

The report singled out Whitfield as one of the seven lawmakers whose position switch occurred near the time he received donations.

"Obviously, U.S.-Cuban relations remain quite fluid and ever changing," said Whitfield's spokesman, Kristin Walker. "The congressman has been supportive of altering some of the agricultural and humanitarian aid restrictions currently in existence, but as the report notes his views have evolved over time, influenced in part by direct conversations with some of his colleagues who are very knowledgeable about these issues as well as by the harder line position advocated by the White House during the period referenced."

Whitfield's view changed, in part, after discussing humanitarian interests and concerns about oppression in Cuba with Florida Republican Reps. Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart about their family's experience in Cuba under Fidel Castro. The Diaz-Balart brothers received a combined total of more than $730,000 in contributions.

"It is pretty common practice for PACS to donate to candidates who have taken a similar position on a particular issue, so the fact that the congressman has received contributions from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC is not out of the ordinary," Walker said. "As the report states, donations were made to the congressman after his position began to shift, not before. The $12,000 in campaign contributions Congressman Whitfield received represents a mere 0.03 percent of the congressman's campaign funds raised over the past three election cycles."

The report comes as defenders of the embargo fend off efforts to repeal a decades-old ban against U.S. travel to Cuba. Proponents of greater engagement with Cuba contend that they have the votes, and a hearing on the issue is scheduled for Thursday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, Mauricio Claver-Carone, defended the contributions as support for lawmakers who side with Cuban-Americans who think that easing sanctions against Cuba will only benefit the Castro regime.

"I will not apologize for the Cuban-American community practicing its constitutional, democratic right to support candidates who believe in freedom and democracy for the Cuban people over business and tourism interests," Claver-Carone said. "Unions help elect pro-union candidates. The Chamber of Commerce helps elect pro-business candidates. AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) helps elect pro-Israel members. Who are we supposed to help? Pro-Castro members?"

(Barbara Barrett and David Goldstein contributed.)