Sen. John Kerry and his campaign have spent much of the last week accusing President Bush's campaign of illegally coordinating with a third-party group that has been running scathing ads attacking the Democratic presidential nominee's war record.
Kerry last Thursday called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth a "front for the Bush campaign" that was doing the president's "dirty work." His campaign filed a complaint Friday with the Federal Election Commission spelling out the allegations.
Today, with the resignation of Bush-Cheney national counsel Ben Ginsberg — who left the campaign after the disclosure he had also been working for Swift Boat Veterans for Truth — that charge has taken on new momentum, in the media if not with the FEC.
"It's another piece of the mounting evidence of the ties between the Bush campaign and this group," said Kerry spokesman Chad Claton. "The longer President Bush waits to specifically condemn this smear, the more it looks like his campaign is behind it."
Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel insists "there has been no coordination at any time." For his part, Ginsberg accused the media of having a "stunning double standard" on the actions of independent groups who oppose Kerry and those who are aligned with him.
In his letter of resignation, Ginsberg said his legal advice to the anti-Kerry veterans — a group classified as a "527" by the Internal Revenue Service — "was done so in a manner that is fully appropriate and legal and, in fact, is quite similar to the relationships between my counterparts at the DNC and the Kerry campaign and Democrat 527s such as Moveon.org, the Media Fund and Americans Coming Together."
Regardless of Kerry's feelings about this particular independent group and its charges, he has been more beneficiary than victim of these types of independent groups.
When he was struggling against a mighty Democratic challenger, Howard Dean, during the primaries, an independent group with myriad Kerry ties suddenly emerged to slam the former Vermont governor in a harsh TV ad. When Kerry campaign was running short on cash earlier this year, a number of liberal, independent groups with ties to the Massachusetts senator and the Democratic Party saturated the airwaves in battleground states with anti-Bush TV ads.
Arguably no one has benefited more from the existence of these types of independent groups than Kerry. And unlike the president, Kerry has not called for the FEC to rule them illegal.
The Shadowy Anti-Dean Group
Swift Boats Veterans for Truth is classified as a "527" by the IRS code. Since it is registered this way, it is banned from coordinating with a political party or campaign, and it is not supposed to be advocating for the defeat or election of any candidate.
The benefit of registering as a 527 is that the group is able to raise the same kind of unlimited (or "soft") campaign dollars banned to political parties and campaigns, such as the $200,000 given to the group by Bob Perry, a real estate magnate with ties to Bush adviser Karl Rove. Kerry has referred to Perry as "a Republican contributor out of Texas."
In December 2003, however, the scathing TV ads that were all the talk of the political world were not funded by fat-cat Texas Republicans, nor were they targeted at Kerry. Quite the contrary.
Dean was riding high in the polls until a new TV ad began appearing in early-primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina. Featuring the image of Osama bin Laden, the ad told viewers that "Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead. But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy." Captions floated up and around the screen: "No experience," "Destroy Us."
The 527 behind this particular ad, Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values, was put together by supporters and former staffers of Dean's two main opponents at that point in time: Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., and Kerry.
The group's treasurer was Robert Gibbs, who only weeks before served as a campaign spokesman for Kerry. According to campaign finance records, its two biggest contributions — $100,000 each — came from the Yankees Entertainment Network, run by Leo Hindery, who has given $5,000 to Kerry over the years, and Slimfast founder S. Daniel Abraham, who has given Kerry $4,000.
Bernard Schwartz — the chairman of Loral Space and Communications, who had given Kerry the maximum contribution of $2,000 just months before — chipped in $15,000. Swanee Hunt, who has given at least $3,000 to Kerry over the years, donated $25,000 to the group. A $50,000 donation came from the defunct re-election campaign of Sen. Bob Torricelli, the ethics-challenged former New Jersey senator who was also a Kerry supporter.
All told, Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values spent $633,000 on anti-Dean ads, about a third of the funding of which was tied to Kerry campaign supporters from over the years.
The Kerry campaign then — just like the Bush campaign today — insisted there was nothing untoward about the fact that supporters and former staffers loyal to Kerry were cropping up with this group.
"I have raised some money for John," Torricelli said at the time. "I have known him for many years and probably have contributed to most members of the Democratic caucus. I don't have a role in the campaign nor am I seeking one."
Dean was not so willing to dismiss the connections.
In February, before he dropped out of the race and endorsed Kerry, he said Kerry supported President Bush not only on Iraq, "but Sen. Kerry apparently also supports the kind of politically corrupt fund-raising mechanisms that George Bush has also employed."
"I have not heard of a case where other candidates have their supporters contribute to a secret political action group to run ads … with pictures of Osama bin Laden and so forth, unattributed ads, attacking another candidate. I have not heard of that happening before," Dean said.
"I'm sorry to see Sen. Kerry introduce those techniques to the Democratic Party. The link is unassailable," Dean declared. "The same fund-raiser who was ethically challenged and had to step aside from a Senate race because of that, raised money from the same donors to support both Sen. Kerry and the political action group."
Campaigning for a local candidate in Florida this week, Dean issued similar language — except this time the subject of his wrath was, not surprisingly, Bush.
Bush Campaign's Ties to Swift Boat Veterans
The denial of any coordination by both the Kerry campaign and those behind Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values is important not just for moral or political reasons — it is a legal matter.
"If there was coordination between the groups and the parties or candidates it would be illegal, and it would involve in some cases many millions of dollars of illegal contributions," said Fred Wertheimer of the good-government group Democracy 21. He has lodged legal complaints with the FEC against both liberal and conservative 527s.
The FEC complaint Kerry filed against Swift Boats for Veterans says "based on recent press reports and SBVT's own statements there is overwhelming evidence that SBVT is coordinating its expenditures on advertising and other activities designed to influence the presidential election with the Bush-Cheney campaign."
The anti-Kerry veterans deny any coordination whatsoever. "We are our own people," retired Adm. Roy Hoffmann told ABC News. "We have absolutely no connection" to the Republican Party or the Bush campaign, he said.
For evidence of coordination, Kerry's campaign points to not only Ginsberg but the group's biggest donor, Perry, the Texas Republican who gave the group $200,000. Perry, a friend of Bush adviser Rove since at least 1986, has also donated generously to the various campaigns of George W. Bush and other family members.
Another Texas Republican, Merrie Spaeth, has done public relations for the group and for the Bush administration. The group hired as a business manager Susan Arceneau, the treasurer of the political action committee belonging to former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
The Bush campaign denies any collusion with the group at all. Last Saturday, after it was pointed out that retired Air Force Col. Ken Cordier, a member of the Bush-Cheney campaign's veterans steering committee, appears in the latest TV ad from the anti-Kerry veterans, the campaign dismissed Cordier.
Democratic Ties Closer?
But the Bush campaign charges there are much stronger ties between Kerry's campaign and left-leaning 527s than on the Republican side of the aisle. Moreover, liberal 527s have out-raised their conservative counterparts by a ratio of 14-to-1.
"It is somewhat hypocritical of the Democrats to allege that there's serious coordination on the Republican side when there have been some very serious allegations of coordination on the Democratic side," said Larry Noble of the Center for Responsive Politics. "If you look at the Democrats in these independent groups, these are people who have had in the past and have now close ties to the political party, and close ties to the campaign so you see it on both sides."
The Kerry campaign was once run by Jim Jordan. But last November he left the campaign and now helps to run two liberal 527s, Americans Coming Together, or ACT, and The Media Fund. Gibbs — the former Kerry campaign who worked for Americans for Jobs, Health Care, and Progressive Values — also now works for ACT.
Harold Ickes, former deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House, advises both ACT and the Democratic National Committee, which works directly with the Kerry campaign. Bob Bauer gives legal advice to ACT, worked for the Kerry campaign until a few months ago, and is now paid by the DNC to give the Kerry campaign legal advice. Bill Knapp made ads for The Media Fund and now makes ads for Kerry. Minyon Moore, a founder of ACT, spearheads the Kerry campaign's minority outreach program.
ACT has been given at least $5 million by George Soros, who has also given $4,000 to Kerry over the years. Soros has also given $2.5 million to Moveon.org, which has run some of the harshest anti-Bush ads. At a star-studded event in New York City on Tuesday night, Moveon.org unveiled 14 new ads featuring actors and directors like Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Kevin Bacon, Rob Reiner and Richard Linklater.
Two of the Moevon.org ads that offended the Bush campaign in the past include one showing an image of the Statue of Liberty with a hood over its head, while an announcer explained, "Now it's been reported that Donald Rumsfeld initiated the plan that encouraged the physical coercion and sexual humiliation of prisoners."
Another ad went after President Bush's history with the Texas Air National Guard, saying he "sailed to the top of a list, on his father's name, was trained as a pilot, but failed to show up for a required physical. He was grounded, wasn't seen for months, and then was released eight months early to go to Harvard Business School."
Moveon.org's former organizing director, Zach Exley, now works for the Kerry campaign Web site, while DNC counsel Joe Sandler, also gives the group legal advice.
"There are serious questions here in both parties," said Democracy 21's Wertheimer. "And all of it's happening because the Federal Election Commission refuses to do its job and fails to enforce the law."