Wealthy donors exceeded FEC limits Dozens violated rules in 1991-1992

November 16, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- William C. W. Mow, chairman of Bugle Boy Jeans in Los Angeles, says he had no clue he was doing anything illegal. By contrast, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., investment executive Thomas Hansberger concedes up front that he is NTC "guilty as charged."

Some wealthy Americans blame their spouses. Many are angry that federal authorities failed to notify them about their offenses.

Whatever the explanation, 109 political donors appear to have exceeded the $25,000 annual limit on federal campaign contributions in at least one of the two years before last year's election, according to a computer-assisted analysis of federal election records.

The restrictions on individual donations, enacted as part of election reforms following the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, have been enforced so poorly by the Federal Election Commission that the number of violators in 1992 nearly doubled from the previous election cycle, the study found.

Moreover, seven contributors gave more than $50,000 in last year's elections without any repercussions thus far, and eight donors were repeat offenders.

Not all the contributors whose names appear in FEC files as havinggiven more than the $25,000 limit would necessarily be found guilty of violating federal election laws. Some of them were victims of reporting errors and other glitches in the complex campaign finance disclosure system.

FEC records actually show 141 individuals who gave more than $25,000 in 1991 or 1992, and the Times tried to contact all by fax or registered letter. Of those, 32 replied with evidence that they had not violated the limit. Of the remaining 109, 81 offered no such evidence, and 28 did not respond at all.

Heading the list of donors is Angelo Parisi, a New York chef who opened Baci, a small Italian restaurant in Huntington Beach, Calif. Mr. Parisi made $66,262 in federal donations last year, nearly all of it to Republican causes. Mr. Mow of Bugle Boy was runner-up, with most of his $65,350 also going to the GOP.

Other well-known names exceeding the limits include David Packard, retired chief executive of Hewlett-Packard Co.; Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Bullets and Washington Capitals; rock musician Don Henley; H. Wayne Huizenga, head of Blockbuster Video; and Thomas Kershaw, owner of the Boston pub that spawned the sitcom "Cheers."

Under federal law, contributors who exceed the limit face $5,000 fines for making violations unwittingly and potential criminal prosecution by the Justice Department for knowingly breaking the law.

Few have faced any penalties in past years because the thinly funded FEC has failed to investigate campaign violations aggressively.

Not one of the wealthy donors who appear to have exceeded federal limits last year said they had heard a word from FEC officials before they were contacted in recent weeks.

The lax enforcement comes at a time when President Clinton and Congress are calling for sweeping campaign finance reforms that would set new limits on everything from "soft money" contributions for political parties to expenditures by individual candidates. FEC officials warn that Congress must provide adequate funding to enforce any new restrictions.

The monitoring of current federal laws is even more critical today than when they were first passed in the 1970s because the cost of federal campaigns -- as well as the potential for "political mischief" -- has risen dramatically, said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington research organization devoted to campaign finance reform.

In the 1991-1992 election cycle, about $2 billion in political activity was reported to the FEC.

"The [contribution] limits are a joke when the FEC won't enforce them," Ms. Miller said. "The FEC has just looked aside and ignored them to the benefit of campaigns during the elections and to no discernible detriment to those who violate the laws."

FEC officials contend the agency's $23 million annual budget does not allow for expanded enforcement. It costs about $15,000 to do a full investigation of each case.

While FEC officials admit having neglected violators in the past, they said they now are making enforcement of the annual contribution limits a priority.

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