Donors eye grand prize: a job abroad

Ambassadors: Campaign contributors put big money on hopes for an overseas post.

March 25, 2001|By Peter H. Stone

ROCKWELL Schnabel and George Argyros are wealthy businessmen from Southern California who, at first glance, don't seem to have all that much in common. But over the past two years, each man joined elite company in the Republican National Committee by directing $250,000 in soft money to the GOP's coffers.

Now, with George W. Bush in the White House, both men are under serious consideration for ambassadorships in some very pleasant climes.

Schnabel, who once was U.S. ambassador to Finland, is the leading candidate to be U.S. ambassador to Italy. Argyros, who used to own the Seattle Mariners, is a strong contender to be ambassador to Spain. Serendipitously, in early January Argyros mailed in a $125,000 personal check as part of the $250,000 he directed to the RNC.

The consideration that Schanbel and Argyros are receiving from the Bush White House underscores the special treatment that big donors and fund-raisers garner when very plum foreign assignments in Europe and elsewhere are handed out.

Other would-be ambassadors include a co-chair of the Bush inaugural committee that raised a record $35 million and a former chairman of the RNC, which raised a record $160 million in soft money during the 1999-2000 elections. Soft money is unregulated contributions to political parties.

While the practice of allocating key European ambassadorships to big money donors and harvesters has become commonplace in recent administrations, it remains controversial. The Senate is now debating a bill that restricts soft money. If Congress passes the bill, it could result in an overhaul of the ambassadorial selection process.

"Eliminating soft money [to party committees]would certainly help in reducing ambassadorships being bartered for huge contributions," says Fred Wertheimer, a champion of the main campaign finance reform bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, a Arizona Republican, and Russell D. Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat.

Historically, when it comes to picking coveted foreign assignments, presidents treat big donors and fund-raisers well. President Clinton and Bush's father each tapped about 10 of their top donors and money harvesters for overseas posts. A White House spokeswoman stresses that the administration, which expects to make about 50 political ambassadorial appointments, is looking for a variety of qualities in its ambassadors.

"We're looking for people with high ethical standards," she said, "who are good communicators and who don't think about an appointment as if it was a reward, but as an opportunity to serve enthusiastically."

But it appears that the Bush administration is also clearly weighing financial help as it makes decisions. To date, the Bush administration has nominated five ambassadors who, along with other nominees for foreign posts, will need to be approved by the Senate. Will Farish, a Kentucky horse breeder and old friend of the Bush family who has been tapped for London, and Richard J. Egan, a wealthy businessman slated to go to Dublin, are big fund-raisers and donors.

Farish and Egan kicked in $100,000 to help fund the Bush-Cheney inaugural bashes and Egan was a Bush "Pioneer" who raised at least $100,000 for the Bush campaign. The White House has also nominated Massachusetts Gov. Paul Cellucci to be ambassador to Canada; Robert T. Blackwill, a Harvard professor who was a National Security Council aide in the first Bush administration, to be ambassador to India; and Margaret Tutwiler, a top aide to former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, to be ambassador to Morocco.

According to sources, several other potential candidates have had discussions with the Bush administration about specific countries. All need to be approved by the president. Most of the candidates, as well as the people involved in the selection process, are reticent and are concerned that press leaks would displease the Bush White House. Nonetheless, there's plenty of buzz among GOP operatives, fund-raisers, and lobbyists about who is likely to be tapped.

"You've got a ton of people out seeking ambassadorships, lobbying for them, and doing the normal self-promotional things that you do to get them," said Charles Black, a well-known GOP operative and partner at Black, Kelly, Scruggs & Healey.

To be sure, the Bush administration has a bevy of contenders to choose from: big donors, fund-raisers, well-connected politicos and friends of President Bush and his associates. Behind the scenes, several wannabe ambassadors are maneuvering to let the administration know that they're ready to go if the right offer comes along.

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