By Bill Allison, editorial director for the Sunlight Foundation.
The strange case of John Edwards -- who has been humiliatingly undressed as a scoundrel and the very opposite of what he pretended to be in two runs for the presidency -- sheds some light on the relationship between politicians and donors and serves as a reminder of how close the bond between those who raise money and those who donate it can be.
Forget about the Faulkner-esque fall of the house of Edwards and all it entails, a description of which could stretch on indefinitely through a whole host of tawdry adjectives, deceptive nouns and lying verbs, and focus on the most essential facts. Edwards found himself in a jam and needed a favor -- basically, money. A pair of wealthy donors to his campaign -- the late Fred Baron, the multimillionaire trial lawyer who was Edwards' national finance chairman, and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon -- provided it. The money did not go to directly to Edwards or his campaign, and the campaign did not disclose the payments as contributions, nor what they paid for as expenditures.
The government argued that the payments were in fact for campaign purposes -- keeping Edwards as a viable candidate by hiding information from the public. The money from Baron and Mellon exceeded campaign finance limits, and that Edwards' campaign should have disclosed them. Edwards said the payments had no relationship to his campaign, and concerned a private matter.
While Baron and Mellon's money paid for all sorts of things not generally considered to be legitimate campaign expenses, it is amazing to think that a candidate for the nation's highest office could arrange his affairs so that he could benefit from $1 million from some of his biggest donors without having to disclose any of it to the public.
While the jury deadlocked on five of the charges and found Edwards not guilty of the sixth, what's of more interest than the legal question is the behavioral one: That is, when he needed help, Edwards turned not to a political mentor, a family friend or a longtime colleague, but to political donors. It is another example of the dependence politicians have on their big donors and the symbiotic relationships they develop, and how little we actually learn about those relationships, among the most important a politician cultivates in his career. We get glimpses when there's a scandal -- associates of Barack Obama's bundler George B. Kaiser sending emails about the orgasms Biden's staff had over Solyndra, George W. Bush's backtracking from his association with Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay after Enron melted down, or Bill Clinton getting a call from mega-donor Alfonso Fanjul in the Oval Office during a visit from Monica Lewinsky.
But, scandal or no scandal, these figures loom large in the life of every politician, and yet we know little about them. Federal Election Commission filings tell us who gives to candidates, but offer little insight into which donors politicians cultivate and develop longstanding relationships. For example, consider House Speaker John Boehner. A perusal of data in Influence Explorer shows AT&T's employees and PAC collectively are Boehner's top career donor. But dig deeper, and you'll find that the company's CEO since 2007, Randall L. Stephenson, didn't contribute to Boehner until October 2010. In fact, while Boehner received PAC contributions from AT&T dating back to his first run for Congress, in 1990, he didn't receive a contribution from an actual AT&T employee until July 2010.
Compare that to the track record of Richard Farmer, founder of the Cintas Corporation, which is Boehner's ninth most generous career patron. He's given to Boehner's campaign in every cycle since 1992, including $17,900 to the Boehner for Speaker joint fundraising committee in June 2011. Or how about the late Carl Lindner? The mega-Republican donor and founder of American Financial Group -- number seven on Boehner's top ten -- started contributing to Boehner in the 1994 election cycle, and gave his last donation in July 2011 -- about four months before he died. Boehner noted his passing on his website. Lindner's family has continued to give; his son Craig donated $45,800 to the Boehner for Speaker joint fundraising committee. When Boehner needs money quickly -- and not for anything other than the normal things politicians need money for: supporting a candidate in a tight primary, funding the National Republican Congressional Committee down the stretch, or raising money for his own leadership PAC--which donors does he turn to?
Where does any powerful member of Congress turn? Boehner's predecessor in the Speaker's chair, Nancy Pelosi, ranks among her top career donors, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery; Gallo family members, including Robert J. Gallo, the company's president, have given to Pelosi year after year; in 2010, winery employees and Gallo family members contributed $256,700, with 93 percent of the total going to Democrats.
Needless to say, the big donors that politicians rely on have interests before government. And they have access to the politicians they support. But what those relationships are, and what they signify in terms of the policies that Presidents pursue and Congresses adopt, is something the public is rarely clued into. So while Edwards may have plumbed new depths in the misdeeds of federal candidates, the actions that led to his trial followed a familiar path for all politicians: in need of something, he turned to his big donors.