Newsweek touted Thompson's "willing[ness] to buck his party" in committee investigation, but not his later reported capitulation
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A Newsweek article cited former Sen. Fred Thompson's leadership of a 1997 investigation into Republican campaign finance irregularities as evidence that he "was willing to buck his party." However, Thompson shut down the investigation before Democrats could introduce evidence linking GOP lawmakers to a fundraising group they claimed had skirted campaign finance laws.
An article in the June 25 edition of Newsweek cited former Sen. Fred Thompson's (R-TN) leadership of a 1997 Governmental Affairs Committee investigation into campaign finance irregularities as evidence that he "was willing to buck his party." However, while Thompson did initially undertake an investigation of Republicans as well as Democrats, he shut down the investigation before Democrats were able to introduce evidence linking Republican lawmakers to Triad Management, a fundraising group that Democrats claimed had skirted campaign finance laws. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on November 1, 1997, that Thompson "abruptly halted" the investigation and that "Democrats noted that Thompson's cancellation of hearings coincided with questions emerging this week about Republican-backed groups using millions of dollars to help party candidates in last year's election. With Thompson unwilling to examine those questions in public hearings, Democrats said it is time to move on and fix the flawed campaign-finance system."
From the June 25 edition of Newsweek:
Like McCain, Thompson showed he was willing to buck his party, even if it meant making enemies. In 1997, he was appointed to lead hearings into Democratic fund-raising abuses in the 1996 campaign. It was a starring role for a first-term senator and a nod at his popularity within the GOP. But the warm feelings didn't last. When Thompson broadened his investigation to look into alleged abuses by Republicans, he became an enemy to his party. "Fred was under considerable pressure to turn up and publicize evidence of wrongdoing [by Clinton], but his goal throughout was to be thorough and fair, and that didn't endear him to either side," says Sen. Susan Collins, a friend of his.
Thompson's probe -- which concluded without a splash -- left him on the outs with GOP heavyweights. His archives show he repeatedly requested a seat on the Senate intelligence committee. But Majority Leader Trent Lott [R-MS], once a close ally, snubbed him.
The tension between Lott and Thompson was reportedly the result of Thompson's decision to focus the hearings on campaign finance reform in addition to allegations of illegal fundraising by Democrats. On October 6, 1997, The Washington Times reported that Lott and Thompson had "barely uttered a word to each other in six months." The Times explained:
It all started one fateful day last March when Mr. Thompson, with the backing of only four other GOP senators, outmaneuvered his party's leadership to broaden the scope of the committee's investigation to cover not only "illegal" acts by the Democratic Party, but also "improper" acts by both parties. Mr. Thompson was hoping the hearings would set the stage for campaign-finance reform.
Mr. Lott and Majority Whip Don Nickles, Oklahoma Republican, on the other hand, both strong opponents of the campaign-finance bill, opposed the "improper" language. But Mr. Thompson and his supporters, including Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and co-sponsor of the legislation, won the fight.
In exchange for cooperation from Democrats on his committee, who agreed to vote with the Republican majority to grant immunity to witnesses who would be helpful in the investigation, Thompson agreed to support Democrats' efforts to investigate Republican fundraising efforts. A July 1, 1997, editorial in The Washington Post explained that arrangement:
As a sign of newly found comity, the 16-member committee voted unanimously to grant immunity to four witnesses who might be able to shed light on possible laundering of donations to 1996 Democratic campaigns. The immunized witnesses could be especially helpful in exposing the possible role of foreign influence and money in last year's races. The committee's decision, however, does more than advance the inquiry into Democratic fund-raising. As a result of Democratic cooperation on the immunity offer, Sen. Thompson has agreed to support subpoenas requested by Democrats and, where necessary, to press compliance with subpoenaed Republican inclined organizations. The list includes former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour and the RNC-affiliated National Policy Forum.
But on November 1, 1997 -- the day after Thompson shut down the investigation -- an article in The Tampa Tribune noted Republicans' dissatisfaction with the hearings. The article asserted that Republicans were "openly appalled that the hearings have led to a Justice Department investigation into former Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour for his role in soliciting foreign contributions for a tax-exempt Republican think tank." The Boston Globe reported that day that "Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, have criticized Thompson for allowing Democrats to spend a week earlier this year examining the dealings of former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour."
Additionally, Thompson's disagreement with Lott over the focus of the hearings notwithstanding, the Globe reported on November 1, 1997, that "[a]fter Republicans expressed concern that the Senate campaign-finance investigation could lead to a probe of GOP practices, Senator Fred Thompson yesterday suspended the hearings, saying he had run out of quality witnesses who could testify about Democratic campaign irregularities." The Globe added that "continuing the Senate hearings likely would allow Democrats to control the agenda at some point and present evidence about GOP fund-raising practices."
On October 30, 1997 -- the day before Thompson adjourned the hearings altogether -- The New York Times reported that Senate investigators had evidence of Triad's connections to Republican lawmakers:
Documents released by Senate investigators today identified 20 donors to a private conservative organization that worked outside the normal political channels in ways that benefited conservative Republicans, including two members of the Senate committee investigating campaign finances.
One beneficiary was Senator Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican who as a member of the Governmental Affairs Committee has been trying to persuade the Senate leadership to end the hearings that have proceeded for almost four months under the direction of Senator Fred Thompson, Republican of Tennessee.
Another committee member who benefited from the organization's activities was Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas.
Senator Nickles appeared in marketing advertisements for the organization, Triad Management Services, a consulting group that helped conservative donors make contributions outside the purview of Federal election laws. Mr. Nickles's political action committee received tens of thousands of dollars in donations in 1996 from some of Triad's biggest donors.
In Mr. Brownback's 1996 Senate race, a last-minute $400,000 television advertising blitz was paid for by Triad donors. These advertisements appeared in the closing weeks of the election and attacked his Democratic opponent as an out-of-state liberal.
The Times and others reported that "[h]earings had been scheduled for this week before the Governmental Affairs Committee into Triad's campaign activities, but Republicans on the committee canceled them after Democratic members of the committee obtained names earlier this week of Triad's donors."
An October 30, 1997, Roll Call article reported on Thompson's refusal to grant Democratic hearings as well:
Senate Governmental Affairs Chairman Fred Thompson (R-Tenn) is refusing to give Democrats their own day of hearings to air allegations of GOP fundraising abuses, saying they blew their chance when Democratic staffers allegedly obtained bank records improperly.
The bank records reveal the names of donors to two non-profit groups, Citizens for Reform and Citizens for the Republican Education Fund, which funded TV ads attacking Democratic candidates in the last election cycle. The contributions were solicited by Triad Management Inc., a GOP consulting firm that has come under heavy scrutiny by Democratic investigators.
One GOP committee aide said the manner in which Democratic staff obtained the records from Crestar Bank was "one of the most outrageous, unethical series of events we've seen to date."
The GOP aide added, "The chairman is going to have something to say about it... We're going to ask that something be done to the staff person involved in it."
In a letter to Thompson on Tuesday, Governmental Affairs ranking member John Glenn (D-Ohio) deplored "the false assertion that my staff has somehow acted improperly in regard to a subpoena for certain bank records of Triad Management. The fact is that they acted properly throughout."
Glenn has said that Thompson originally agreed to let him have three days of hearings, in addition to the three days Democrats controlled in August, to delve into GOP fundraising abuses. But GOP aides have strongly denied that such an agreement was ever made.
On November 1, 1997, the day after Thompson suspended the proceedings entirely, the Los Angeles Times reported on Democrats' suspicion that the hearings had been ended just in time to prevent examination of Brownback's and Nickles' connections to Triad. From the November 1, 1997, Los Angeles Times article:
Although Thompson said he reserved the right to resume hearings before the committee's Dec. 31 cutoff date if dramatic new evidence turns up, Democrats noted the suspension came as they were about to examine how two Republicans on the panel had benefited from secret donations given to a conservative consulting group.
Democrats had planned to call witnesses to show that the group, Triad Management Services, accepted donations totaling $400,000 to help Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) win election last year. Triad also paid for advertisements to benefit Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.), according to documents.
Although no illegalities were alleged, the Triad episode was to demonstrate how Republicans as well as Democrats had taken advantage of private citizen groups -- with no contribution limits or disclosure requirements -- to finance campaign activities with no public reporting required and no limit on contributions.
Sen. John Glenn of Ohio, the ranking Democrat on Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee, said in an interview Friday: "Obviously, they didn't want the Triad evidence to come out. But we'll include it in the final report."
The Boston Globe article from November 1, 1997, reporting on Thompson's cancellation of the remainder of the hearings also noted the connection and further noted that, even though Thompson had canceled the day of hearings he had promised to Democrats, "continuing the Senate hearings likely would allow Democrats to control the agenda at some point." From the Globe:
On the surface, it may seem surprising that Republicans don't want to continue an investigation that has focused on Clinton. But continuing the Senate hearings likely would allow Democrats to control the agenda at some point and present evidence about GOP fund-raising practices.
For example, the most outspoken advocate for ending the hearings is Senator Don Nickles, an Oklahoma Republican, who serves on the committee. Democrats have spent months accumulating documents about an organization called Triad Management that is tied to Nickles. Democrats said Triad took anonymous donations and funneled the money into advertisements that helped Republicans. Democrats have said the operation skirts campaign-finance laws and have noted Nickles once filmed an advertisement praising the group. Triad officials have denied any wrongdoing.
A Knight-Ridder Newspapers article from the same day corroborated the notion that Democrats were preparing to introduce information that might have damaged Nickles:
Nickles may have found himself under the spotlight if the hearings had continued and started examining independent groups, as Democrats wanted.
Democrats said Friday that the hearings were stopped just as they were about to start turning the spotlight on campaign spending by independent groups, including groups that help Republicans. The DNC issued a statement charging that Republicans were blocking the committee Democrats from turning the focus to a pro-Republican organization with ties to Nickles.
On the November 20, 1997, broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered, host Peter Overby noted that then-Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-NJ) claimed Thompson had shut down the hearings because the Triad questions were being raised and "the majority just needed a way to stop the process." From the November 20, 1997, broadcast of All Things Considered:
OVERBY: Democrats say Triad was more than an intermediary. It's illegal to coordinate spending between a congressional candidate and any outside group. Senator Robert Torricelli says Triad did exactly that.
TORRICELLI: This is not something that happened by chance. It appears to be an organization that was established for the very purpose of engaging in a conspiracy to violate the law.
OVERBY: Torricelli and other Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee wanted to hold a public hearing on Triad. [Director of Triad Management Services Carolyn] Malenick says she was eager to testify. She would have said Triad helped donors exercise their First Amendment rights, and did not illegally coordinate with any campaigns.
But then the Democrats obtained some of Triad's donor lists, and Committee Chairman Fred Thompson suspended public hearings indefinitely. Torricelli says the majority just needed a way to stop the process.
TORRICELLI: The problem with Triad is that its activities involved members of the Senate itself. It was a lot more interesting for senators to be investigating President Clinton, who was not represented on the committee and could not speak for himself, than to be engaged in looking at their own activities.
OVERBY: One senator's activities are especially interesting to Democrats. Don Nickles, the Senate's number two Republican, was the committee's most aggressive questioner when it was Democrats being interrogated, but he was also in that infomercial for Triad, and lavish in his praise.
By 1998, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) "had concluded that Triad had violated federal campaign laws by failing to register as a federal political committee," according to Roll Call (subscription required). A December 5, 2002, Kansas City Star article reported that the FEC found that "Brownback's in-laws, John and Ruth Stauffer of Topeka, violated federal election laws by funneling excessive campaign donations to him in 1996" through Triad and political action committees working with Triad. The FEC also ordered Brownback's campaign to refund to the U.S. Treasury $19,000 in over-the-limit contributions. A Media Matters for America search of the Lexis-Nexis database did not find any reports indicating that Nickles' reported involvement with Triad resulted in legal action.
Thompson did not have enough GOP backing to continue the hearings into 1998. The Boston Globe article noted that "Thompson acknowledged that he didn't have the necessary support among Republicans to reach the 60 votes needed to continue the probe into next year." An October 28, 1997, Associated Press article reported that Thompson had requested an extension from Lott, without which "his committee would be required to end its investigation into 1996 political fund-raising abuses by Dec. 31" of 1997. The November 1, 1997, Los Angeles Times article also noted that Thompson had not exhausted the funding allocated for the investigation: "The Senate committee has spent $ 2.6 million of its $ 4.3-million budget, Thompson said, adding that 'we ought to be able to turn back a pretty good chunk' to Congress."