Packwood's pals help with cash Businessmen's donations anger women's groups

November 19, 1993|By Donna St. George | Donna St. George,Knight-Ridder News Service Staff writer Michael Dresser contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- If Bob Packwood worked for Amoco when 28 female associates accused him of groping and French-kissing them, his boss might have fired him by now. If he worked for CNN, he might be out the door. Likewise at Southwest Airlines.

But, of course, Mr. Packwood is no ordinary citizen. He is a powerful senator in Washington. And when he was accused of sexual misconduct, corporate America did not react with even a glimmer of the harshness that its own rules suggest.

Instead, chief executives and Washington lobbyists delivered cash to the accused senator -- thousands and thousands of dollars of it.

Officials of at least 15 corporations have written big-dollar checks to help the Oregon Republican save his political life. So have prominent politicians. And labor groups.

"He's entitled to his day in court," said Arco spokesman Albert Greenstein, who defended Mr. Packwood's right to a defense -- and Arco's chief executive's right to help him have one, with a $1,000 donation.

But women's groups were outraged that companies they work for and buy from would help defend a man facing so many allegations of sexual harassment.

"Women around the country are going to be angry, absolutely," said Ellen Bravo, executive director of 9 to 5, National Association of Working Women.

"This will reinforce their fear that when the big boys are in trouble they are going to stick together," Ms. Bravo said. "Women are worried. Their companies have these sexual harassment policies. But do they mean it?"

The Packwood donations -- 243 in all -- have been deposited into a legal defense fund that has amassed about $275,000. Most of it is being used to hire one of Washington's most prestigious and most expensive law firms.

By contrast, the women accusing Mr. Packwood have raised a total of $20,000 to $25,000. The largest donation was $500 from Gloria Steinem. Lawyers are working for free.

"The playing field is completely uneven," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Fund for the Feminist Majority. "The money, the disparity in the lawyers, the access . . . the whole system is set up for the senator."

Mr. Packwood was first accused of sexual harassment in November, when charges were also made that he tried to intimidate women from coming forward with their stories. At one point, the senator said he was "just plain wrong." But as the Senate Ethics Committee has investigated his case and more women have accused him, Mr. Packwood has denied many accounts of his conduct.

With such a strong risk of alienating women -- and many men -- the most obvious question is why would companies give money to Mr. Packwood in the first place?

Of 15 companies contacted for this story, 14 provided or described explicit corporate rules forbidding the conduct of which Mr. Packwood is accused. Those rules specify punishment up to and including dismissal if the accusations prove founded.

Critics suggest Mr. Packwood's legislative influence means more many companies than his alleged misconduct. The senator is the senior Republican on the powerful Senate Finance Committee, which writes tax and trade laws.

"He's a friend, and we don't want to lose him," acknowledged Mary Hanagan, executive director of a political action committee that represents car dealers, which gave the senator $5,000.

Ted Turner's broadcasting company -- which contributed $2,000 cited Mr. Packwood's "very distinguished record" and said he "is entitled to a defense." But its statement also hinted at the politics involved.

The senator "is a friend of the cable industry," said a spokesman.

But most corporate donors distanced themselves from the Packwood donations. Their Washington lobbyists and chief executive officers simply opted to make large "personal" contributions, they said.

Among the companies giving this explanation were Eli Lilly International Corp., MCI Communications Corp. and Bell Atlantic Corp.

A spokesman for Bell Atlantic said a $500 contribution that has been widely reported as having come from the company was a "strictly personal" gift from Aubrey Sarvis, the company's vice president of federal relations.

Dave Pacholczyk, the Bell Atlantic spokesman, said Mr. Sarvis knew Mr. Packwood from the time when Mr. Sarvis served as chief Democratic counsel to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Mr. Pacholczyk said neither the company nor its political action committee had given any money to the Packwood fund. Mr. Sarvis "did not seek approval of his contribution from anyone at Bell Atlantic and we were not aware of it," Mr. Pacholczyk said, adding that Bell Atlantic has a strict policy against sex harassment.

While he defended Mr. Sarvis' right as a private citizen to make such contributions, Mr. Pacholczyk said, "I can only assume that Aubrey has received some counsel perhaps on this donation." Mr. Sarvis was on Capitol Hill and could not be reached for comment, the spokesman said.

The "personal" contribution from the various executives raised eyebrows in Washington because many were made by lobbyists whose job it is to curry favor in Washington so that senators such as Mr. Packwood will look favorably upon laws that help their companies. Many of the gifts list corporate addresses, suggesting a professional nature to the contribution.

Gary Nordlinger, a prominent political consultant in Washington, said some companies illegally grant their government relations executives generous bonuses with the understanding that half is to be used for political contributions.

Mr. Pacholczyk said that was not the case at Bell Atlantic. "I know how our executives are compensated, and it's not that way at all," he said.

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