Fishy Donors Haunt Hillary’s Run

If you can't trust a millionaire who wants to funnel millions to a presidential candidate, who can you trust these days?

It's the ugly flipside of the most expensive campaign in American history. Every day brings a new set of revelations about fishy donors and fishier "bundlers" whose complicated business interests -- and, often, questionable pasts -- offer no barrier to their ability to shower cash on eager candidates (particularly, it seems, if that candidate has the last name of "Clinton").

The Wall Street Journal's Brody Mullins and Ianthe Jeanne Dugan today find another suspicious "bundler" who's helping Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y.: William Danielczyk, founder of a Washington-area private-equity firm. They quote a donor, Pamela Layton, as saying she was reimbursed by Danielczyk -- her husband's boss -- for the donations -- which is quite illegal: "I don't even like Hillary. I'm a Republican," Layton said. The Clinton campaign says it's sending back the $9,200 donated by the Laytons, and will review all of the contributions brought in by Danielczyk (strarting to sound familiar?).

This, of course, comes on top of the Norman Hsu debacle (and there's more on an old alleged Hsu-devised Ponzi scheme in today's Los Angeles Times).

Another Hsu could drop today -- this from a press release this morning from the US attorney for the Southern District of New York: "A press conference will be held today to announce the unsealing of a criminal complaint charging an individual with perpetrating a $60 million 'Ponzi' fraud scheme. The complaint also alleges that the defendant committed related federal campaign finance crimes."

In addition, Clinton is still refusing to say whether she'll return money from Oscar Wyatt, who is on trial for fraud, conspiracy, and other charges related to Saddam Hussein's abuse of the UN's oil-for-food program. Wyatt appears to have had a close relationship with President Bill Clinton during the 1990s, according to testimony that's emerged at federal trials, per ABC News.

And The Washington Post's John Solomon and Matthew Mosk examine Clinton's top fund-raisers and find "several figures who were involved in the 1990s Democratic Party fundraising scandal that tarnished her husband's record."

"Among them is an Oklahoma oilman who testified in the mid-1990s that the firm he worked for, owned by Democratic fundraisers, sought to curry favor with Bill Clinton's administration by providing payments and a golf club membership to a Cabinet secretary's son," Solomon and Mosk write. "Also on the list [of "Hillraisers"] is former senator Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), who withdrew from a 2002 reelection campaign after being 'severely admonished' by the Senate for taking lavish gifts from a businessman and contributor."

So far, this is more of an issue for Clinton than any other candidate -- and the issue revives the bad memories of the scandal-ridden White House years. But she's not the only candidate touched by the creeping shade of such scandals. Alan Fabian -- a fund-raiser for former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass. -- was charged in a 23-count indictment last month alleging money laundering and obstruction of justice.

One of former senator John Edwards' top money folks -- trial lawyer William S. Lerach -- is now headed to prison for at least 12 months under a plea agreement on a conspiracy charge. The Washington Post's Solomon and Carrie Johnson report that Edwards "used the bully pulpit of his presidential campaign to publicly pressure the Securities and Exchange Commission" on Lerach's behalf in May. Edwards on Tuesday returned his personal donations from Lerach -- and he's given to other Democrats as well -- but Edwards "isn't returning the money he raised from others," Solomon and Johnston write.

Elsewhere in the campaign (and not to jinx anybody's streak here), former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, R-N.Y., is as hot as his beloved Yankees this week. But Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., looked more like the Mets yesterday -- stumbling en route to the playoffs.

To review Giuliani's past few days: He's tussling with Clinton (even though he seems oddly taken with the Clintons' fame), and is talking tough against Iran. In Iowa, his campaign is engaged in an ad war not with his challengers but with the liberal group -- a fight Rudy will take any day. And he spent yesterday hobnobbing with the Brits, with Winston Churchill's granddaughter calling the former New York City mayor "Churchill in a baseball cap."

ABC's Jake Tapper sees Giuliani trying to look past his GOP rivals: "His focus on Clinton rather than his GOP opponents is clearly calculated to demonstrate to Republicans, many of whom are wary of some of his more liberal views, that he is best equipped to defeat Clinton in a general election," Tapper writes. "He is also hoping that his London visit will feed into the image of him as a statesman that he's worked to project, as opposed to past moments when he seemed more a rough-and-tumble New York City street fighter."

This is a frontrunner's campaign that's hitting its stride. But before he can coast to any nomination, he'll have to answer skeptics like those he'll face tomorrow when he and the rest of the GOP field appears before the before the National Rife Association (Rudy's Red Sox -- in Orange Jackets?) in Washington. Those decade-old comments he made calling the NRA "extremists" are suddenly getting wide circulation.

And "even as the former New York mayor strives to burnish his Second Amendment credentials at the gathering in Washington, a panel of federal judges in his home town will be hearing arguments on the lawsuit that Giuliani filed seven years ago aimed at punishing the nation's gun manufacturers for violent crimes involving firearms," write Michael Shear and Anne Kornblut of The Washington Post.

Bloomberg's Heidi Przybyla doesn't think gun owners are ready to buy candidates' transformations. "At least two of the party's frontrunners, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, have histories of support for gun control. While the two are shifting their stances, it may not be enough to overcome the suspicions of gun owners, who may be more attracted by former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson."

Toss in this warning from former governor Tom Vilsack, D-Iowa, a prominent Clinton supporter, and you'll remember why no lead is safe. "There's a lot that the rest of the country is going to get to know about Mayor Giuliani that the folks in New York City know," Vilsack told the TV station NY1, per the New York Post's Carl Campanile. "I can't even get into the number of marriages and the fact that his children -- the relationship he has with his children -- and what kind of circumstances New York was in before Sept. 11." Really, governor, you can't get into it?

As for Obama, the Rev. Jesse Jackson may or may not have said that Obama is "acting like he's white" by staying on the sidelines of the "Jena 6" debate, but this isn't the first time that Obama has faced criticism from black leaders for not coming out aggressively enough on a full-blown civil-rights media event. (Remember Imus? Al Sharpton does.)

Jackson released a statement saying he's still firmly behind Obama's candidacy, but by that time the case involving six black Louisiana teens already morphed into a full-blown campaign issue -- with Jackson's comments dropping a bomb on the race. Elizabeth Edwards saw off a bus of protesters headed to Jena. Clinton took a break from her healthcare media tour to squeeze in an interview on the Sharpton's radio program -- "capitalizing on the rift," as the New York Post's Geoff Earle put it.

Obama yesterday weighed in forcefully, calling the case a "tragedy" and (finally) calling for charges to be dropped. But he lost an opportunity to own an issue that's resonating with prominent black leaders. The New York Sun's Nicholas Wapshott sees Obama's early silence raising his own stakes: "Senator Obama's presidential ambitions may rest on how he responds to the trials in Jena, La.," Wapshott writes. "As the sole black candidate in the presidential race, the Illinois Democrat is under mounting pressure from black political leaders to side more strenuously with the accused and object more clearly to the actions of the LaSalle Parish district attorney."

The battle for black voters is playing out inside the Congressional Black Caucus, which is split 11-9-3 between Obama, Clinton, and Edwards. Per The Hill's Jonathan Kaplan, "Obama's supporters are privately crying foul because they feel that the group's neutrality is being subverted by Chairwoman Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) and Rep. Kendrick Meek (D-Fla.), chairman of the CBC Foundation, who have invited Clinton to a forum at next week's Annual Legislative Conference at the Washington Convention Center."

The fervor over Jena distracted from Obama's new ad, which itself was something of a response to Clinton with its call to "bring an end to decades of division and deadlock."

Clinton's healthcare plan dominated political discussion for another day. Stung by comparisons to his own plan, Romney seeks to spell out the differences in a Wall Street Journal op-ed. "Her plan has several weaknesses and should be distinguished from the reforms I led in Massachusetts and the reform plan I have proposed," Romney writes, hopefully. "Let's be clear here: My plan in Massachusetts worked very differently than Sen. Clinton's plan would." This won't be Romney's last stab at being "clear."

Edwards, D-N.C., is anxious not to be left out of this debate, and it's his wife (again) who's plunking him down in the middle of it. Per ABC's Eloise Harper and Raelyn Johnson, "Elizabeth Edwards has a very simple summary of Sen. Hillary Clinton's healthcare plan: 'John Edwards' health care plan as delivered by Hillary Clinton.' " In an interview with the AP, Mrs. Edwards said, "it's almost as if she hasn't been willing to have the courage independently to be a leader on these things." Almost.

Former senator Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., found a comfortable way to issue his first real response to the Clinton plan -- straight to camera from his campaign bus.

But that won't help yesterday's sting: Prominent social conservative James Dobson has added him to his do-not-support list (alongside Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.). Per an e-mail obtained by the AP's Eric Gorski yesterday, Dobson writes: "He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent 'want to.' And yet he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!" (With e-mails like this -- you think he forwarded the Youtube video of the crazy Britney fan?)

Thompson yesterday took what appears to be a swipe at Romney: "My philosophy doesn't depend on my geography," he said during a fund-raising swing through Texas, reports Wayne Slater of the Dallas Morning News. He also had this (lawyerly) response about his lobbying work: "I don't know anybody I ever represented who didn't deserve that representation." Slater points out that the list includes "two Libyan airline-bombing suspects, an abortion-rights group and toppled Haitian leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide."

Also in the news:

Democrats fell four Senate votes short on what they conceded was probably their best shot to influence war policy -- Sen. Jim Webb's, D-Va., plan to force the administration to give soldiers more down time at home. So get ready for more paralysis -- and more politicking -- as the left pushes on with demands that the Democratic Congress rather clearly can't meet.

"With other war initiatives seemingly headed for the same fate, Senate Democrats, who only two weeks ago proclaimed September to be the month for shifting course in Iraq, conceded that they had little chance of success," write The New York Times' David M. Herszenhorn and Carl Hulse. "They said their strategy would now focus on portraying Republicans as opposing any change and on trying to chip away support for the White House as the war continued."

Those sorts of questions just might come up at President Bush's 10:45 am ET press conference.

Once more, in unison now: Iran is bad. Presidential candidates from both parties are piling on the news that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to visit Ground Zero. A sampling, since the statements are virtually interchangeable: "It is unacceptable" (Clinton). "Under no circumstances" (Giuliani). "Ahmadinejad's shockingly audacious request should be met with a vehement no." (Romney).

While fleshing out his foreign-policy credentials, Giuliani raised the prospect of NATO membership for Israel, according to The New York Times' Marc Santora. "The candidate said the United States would use every lever at its disposal, including a military strike, to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon," Santora writes. "He said that such blunt talk was not a 'threat but a promise.' "

McCain's bounce in the polls won't matter if his fund-raising numbers don't bounce back (big time), and the Washington Times reports today that that's not happening. The Times' Ralph Z. Hallow reports that McCain has only raised $3.7 million this quarter -- with just two weeks of fund-raising left -- and quotes a "McCain supporter" on the senator's prospects: "done for." Counters spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker: "Pollsters and experts agree that McCain is clearly gaining traction."

Every time we're ready to give up on Clinton giving a colorful quote, she surprises us. "You can always tell when the Republicans are restless -- because the vice president's motorcade pulls into the Capitol. Darth Vader emerges," Clinton said last night in New York, per ABC's Eloise Harper. (We know -- Obama and Edwards cast Camp Clinton as the Evil Empire. But under her calculations, is she more Luke, Leia, or Obi-Wan?

Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., has an explanation for why he said at the LOGO debate that he believes homosexuality is a "choice." "I was tired. Did you ever fly all night?" he told Washington Post reporters and editors yesterday. Also, he thought it might have been a trick question: "The word 'choice' is a big plus for Democrats."

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., is rolling out his domestic agenda this week, and he puts out his retirement security plan in time for tonight's AARP forum in Iowa (where all the major Democrats save Obama will be). He's open to "upping the retirement age and raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security tax past the $97,500 it was in 2007," per the AP's Amy Lorentzen.

The SEIU is now down to deciding between the Big Three Democrats. That can't be good news for Edwards, who was said to be the front-runner in the endorsement race.

The Washington Post's new "Fact Checker" awards "four Pinocchios" to this Thompson quote from earlier this month: "Our people have shed more blood for other people's liberty than any other combination of nations in the history of the world." Michael Dobbs' calculation: United States: 623,288; Whole World: Tens of millions (including 1.7 British soldiers in just the two World Wars.

The Bush administration is losing another top official (what happened to the Labor Day cutoff?). The White House this morning is announcing that Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns is resigning, so he can run for Sen. Chuck Hagel's seat. As for who Johanns might face? "I expect to say 'yes' or 'no' relatively soon," former senator Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., told the Omaha World-Herald's Jake Thompson.

The Democrats like Michael Mukasey -- but you didn't think confirmation would be bloodless, did you? Columnist Robert Novak sees him as the misguided choice of a "beleaguered" president. "Ideology aside, Mukasey is not well qualified to be attorney general by any rational standard," Novak writes. "With his governmental career exclusively as a prosecutor and judge, he now is being asked to bring order to a building he does not know."

These Republican retirements are getting hard to keep track of. Another GOP moderate, Rep. Jerry Weller, R-Ill., is expected to announce his retirement in the "near future," per the Chicago Tribune's Jim Tankersley. "Weller, a seven-term incumbent, has faced questions about his re-election intentions all month, following a Tribune investigation that revealed he failed to disclose several land transactions in Nicaragua on his congressional ethics forms," Tankersley writes.

The kicker:

"If I see you gaining weight and gaining weight and gaining weight, I would eventually -- if I cared at all about you -- I would say: 'You know something? If you continue this way, you may get into serious trouble.' " -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, R-Calif., on why he's speaking out on the GOP's woes.

"I have not had a handbag since I was on 'Saturday Night Live.' . . . But I can relate very much to that impulse." -- Giuliani, asked about Margaret Thatcher's penchant for hitting opponenets with her handbag.