Sauerbrey and D'Amato swap checks in campaign Pimlico's DeFrancis led joint fund-raising effort in Maryland

December 22, 1998|By Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. | Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr.,SUN STAFF Sun researcher Genice Owens contributed to this article.

In the closing weeks of this year's race for governor, supporters of Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey found an unlikely way to give her financial assistance: They sent $1,000 checks to Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, a New York Republican.

At the same time, dozens of D'Amato's backers from New York and elsewhere returned the favor by making contributions of up to $8,000 apiece to Sauerbrey.

The Maryland-New York connection was a behind-the-scenes agreement between the two campaigns to tap into each other's financial bases. D'Amato's camp urged some of the senator's backers to write checks to Sauerbrey; in exchange, Sauerbrey supporters aggressively solicited contributions for D'Amato from Marylanders.

Known as "check swapping" in political circles, the arrangement netted Sauerbrey at least $118,000 from New York givers and D'Amato at least $50,000 from Maryland.

The effort to help Sauerbrey was led by Joseph A. De Francis, the principal owner of Laurel and Pimlico race courses, who helped generate thousands of dollars in contributions for D'Amato from Marylanders affiliated with horse racing.

For some of those involved, sending checks to the D'Amato re-election effort was an effective way to generate campaign cash for Sauerbrey from New York with little public notice.

And some supporters who had given Sauerbrey the maximum amount allowed under state law were able to continue to help her indirectly by giving to D'Amato, and vice versa, according to an analysis of campaign finance reports.

"The intention was to achieve synergy from the two fund-raising bases," De Francis said.

In all, Sauerbrey supporters raised at least $50,000 for D'Amato in mid-October, with most of it coming from the racing industry, according to the reports.

In return, the D'Amato financial machine generated at least $118,000 for Sauerbrey, with New York City developers, Chicago bankers and Long Island construction companies sending checks.

The contributions to Sauerbrey and D'Amato -- who both lost in the November elections -- were recorded on their respective financial statements within the same two-day period.

There is no indication that the joint fund raising -- detailed in finance reports filed in Annapolis, Washington and Albany, N.Y. -- violated state or federal election laws.

But advocates of campaign-finance reform said the practice serves to circumvent limits on campaign contributions and weakens the law that requires all contributions be made public.

"The whole foundation of our campaign finance system is that everything is supposed to be disclosed and the public can see where the money is coming from," said Paul Hendrie, communications director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, Washington advocacy group.

"When you're using state and federal campaign committees and swapping money between the candidates, it makes it that much harder to track the money, and it's certainly impossible for the average citizen to track it," Hendrie said.

Hendrie and others involved in campaign finance issues said check swapping and similar techniques are becoming more common as candidates, hamstrung by campaign spending limits, look for new ways to raise money to pay for increasingly expensive races.

Sauerbrey did not respond to phone messages. Her campaign spokeswoman, Carol L. Hirschburg, said she did not know the details of D'Amato's fund-raising assistance. But, she said: "All contributions seem to have been reported in accordance with the law."

A D'Amato campaign spokesman did not respond to requests for comment. D'Amato's offices in Washington and New York were closed in recent days.

D'Amato, who raised more than $17 million for this year's election, has been regarded as among the most aggressive and creative fund-raisers in the country.

He and New York Gov. George E. Pataki, a Republican, also raised money together by tapping into each other's base of supporters. Such a strategy "saves time and coordinates efforts," D'Amato said in a recent newspaper interview.

Details of the joint fund raising were gleaned from campaign finance reports filed after Sauerbrey lost to Gov. Parris N. Glendening despite raising more than $6.4 million, a Maryland record.

After 18 years in the Senate, D'Amato was defeated by U.S. Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a Democrat. The D'Amato fund-raising summaries covering the last weeks of the campaign were not made public until Dec. 8.

The D'Amato and Sauerbrey camps joined forces Oct. 21 at a New York City fund-raiser.

Wayne L. Berman, finance chairman of the Republican Governors Association, said he played matchmaker. He said Sauerbrey advisers asked him to arrange an event for Sauerbrey with D'Amato in New York. In exchange, the Sauerbrey camp would raise money for D'Amato.

"She had a need to raise additional funds, and I thought so did he," Berman said of the two candidates. "I thought, 'Hey, let's do what we do.' "

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