WASHINGTON -- The Bush campaign may have played a hidden role in producing the devastating "Willie Horton" ads that helped defeat Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election, recently released Federal Election Commission files suggest.
Democratic Party officials late Friday filed suit in U.S. District Court here demanding that the FEC reopen an investigation into the matter.
The TV ad campaign, perhaps the most enduring image of the 1988 election, used the story -- Willie Horton, a black inmate, fled while on furlough from a Massachusetts prison and later raped a white Maryland woman -- to attack a furlough program during Mr. Dukakis' term as governor of Massachusetts.
During the 1988 campaign, Bush campaign officials repeatedly disassociated themselves from production of the Horton ads. Their denials of involvement established some distance from an effort frequently denounced as racist and inflammatory, but also touched on important legal issues in campaign finance.
The ads were produced by the National Security PAC, which was established by retired military officers and spent more than $10 million during the 1988 campaign. Those expenditures were not subject to federal laws limiting campaign spending by candidates because the political action committee was independent. As an independent committee, the National Security PAC was not supposed to have any contact with the Bush campaign.
But a preliminary investigation by FEC staff uncovered "several factors that would appear to support a finding that National Security PAC's expenditures were not independent," according to a just-released report by FEC general counsel Lawrence M. Noble.
The staff discovered that the production team that filed the Willie Horton ads was headed by two former employees of Roger Ailes, Mr. Bush's 1988 media adviser. Moreover, one of the two producers continued to collect money from Mr. Ailes during 1988 as a free-lancer, doing work for the Bush campaign.
Indeed, Mr. Noble recommended last year that the commission "find reason to believe that Bush-Quayle '88 violated [the law] for accepting prohibited contributions and . . . for not reporting the contributions," the newly released documents show.
Mr. Noble sought a further investigation, but the commission split 3-3 between Republican and Democratic members so nothing came of it. The commission voted in early December to close the investigation. The files were released Jan. 15.