Bundlers raise millions for candidates

Fundraisers use their connections to gain influence

Ideas

November 11, 2007|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN REPORTER

Washington -- When Thomas L. Siebert opened his Annapolis home to Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign last summer, the fundraising reception had a familiar feel. In 1992, Siebert collected tens of thousands of dollars in the same house near the Severn River to prop up Bill Clinton's presidential bid.

After Clinton won, Siebert got a diplomatic plum: He was named U.S. ambassador to Sweden. Today, though, he's known as a bundler: one of hundreds of money men and women who scoop up campaign contributions on behalf of presidential candidates they support.

The practice has been around for years, but bundling has grown more important as candidates raise record sums to spend in a presidential election campaign that some experts estimate will cost $1 billion. Already, more than 2,000 bundlers are at work in the 2008 campaign, according to an analysis by the watchdog group Public Citizen.

"It's not novel, but it has been taken to new heights," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. "The public should care, because to raise the sums that are now necessary to win, they [the bundlers] are going to be even more influential than ever before."

Some bundlers, like Siebert, are longtime friends of a candidate, with successful careers and a keen interest in politics.

"I never sought anything from Bill Clinton when I helped him the first time," said Siebert, a wealthy telecommunications lawyer who met the former president when both were Georgetown University undergraduates.

"I'll tell you what I did like: I knew that when I helped him, we would be pretty A-list for invitations," he said. "And we got invited to all kinds of things." Siebert was also asked to head the American Embassy in Stockholm from 1994 to 1997.

Others are new to the game, eager to back a winner and cultivate relationships that could benefit them and their clients.

Occasionally, their participation can be detrimental to the candidate they are trying to help.

Earlier this year, Democratic bundler Norman Hsu, a fugitive charged with fraud in California, garnered unwanted attention for Hillary Rodham Clinton after his history came to light. Clinton returned more than $800,000 Hsu had raised, some of it from questionable sources.

With so much money being collected, the potential for abuse has grown as bundlers try to fulfill their promises, analysts say.

"On the surface, there is nothing illegal," said Steven Billett, a former Maryland and federal lobbyist who heads the legislative affairs program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "The problem is they work right up to the ragged edge of what is legal and what is not."

Justice Department investigators are gathering information on money raised by Clinton from New York City's Chinatown community, after the Los Angeles Times reported last month on donations from waiters, dishwashers and other low-wage earners who might have been coerced.

Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has returned contributions from the 7- and 8-year-old children of bundler Aris Mardirossian, a Montgomery County developer and engineer, after inquiries from USA Today.

Top government positions, invitations to state dinners and entree to the Oval Office are some of the perquisites that await many of the best-connected bundlers - time-honored rewards if their candidate succeeds.

"We live in a town where access means everything," Billett said. "If you raise $2 million for a presidential campaign and that person is elected, it's hard to say `no' when they need an appointment with a chief of staff."

The practice of bundling is legal. Federal campaign rules allow intermediaries to package donations from individuals of $2,300 or less with no overall limit.

When he ran for president, George W. Bush refined the technique, creating tiers for top fund-raisers and appealing to their competitiveness. "Pioneers" were responsible for collecting $100,000, and "Rangers" raised $200,000.

"I was trying to become a `Pioneer'," said Louis Pope, a Republican national committeeman who heads the Maryland steering committee for Mitt Romney. "I made it to `Mustang,' which was $50,000."

All of this year's leading campaigns use similar systems.

Romney, for example, calls those who raise $250,000 "Founders," while a "Statesman" needs to collect $100,000, and a "Patriot" $50,000. Pope has a tracking number so he gets credit for contributions, but he said, "I don't really care if I make it to a certain level or not.

"It gives you a goal, but achieving that level doesn't get you anything," he said. "I have no desire to work for the government."

Disclosure laws require bundlers to file campaign reports only if they physically collect checks themselves. Most don't, however, relying instead on a tracking number system. So there is no federal record of bundlers, although some lawmakers have proposed that one be created.

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