Originally published in The Akron Beacon Journal

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Sunday, Oct. 10, 1999



Beacon Journal staff writer

When Republican presidential front-runner George W. Bush visited Akron Aug. 20, his campaign coffers swelled with the proceeds from a well-publicized $1,000-a-plate luncheon attended by more than 300 prominent GOP supporters.

But three weeks earlier, the same hotel hosted a private gathering of corporate executives also interested in financing the Texas governor's White House bid.

The earlier event at the Hilton Akron/Fairlawn wasn't billed as a fund-raiser. All the same, it poured tens of thousands into the Bush campaign -- vividly demonstrating how a major corporation can flex its political muscle despite laws aimed at curbing the power of big business to affect elections.

The occasion was the annual two-day conference of high-level managers of FirstEnergy Corp., the Akron-based utility giant that provides electricity for homes and businesses across northern Ohio and into western Pennsylvania.

Amid the usual business of business, about 170 executives, directors, supervisors, managers and spouses heard a hard sales pitch for donations for Bush.

There was nothing illegal about that. While corporations are barred by law from donating a dime to a presidential candidate, nothing stops them from asking their employees to give.

And give they did.

In the following days, 111 employees and spouses of FirstEnergy and corporate subsidiaries came through to the tune of $69,600 -- nearly 7 percent of all contributions made by Ohioans to Bush in the critical first six months of his campaign.

Ralph DiNicola, FirstEnergy's manager of public relations, made no apologies for backing Bush.

DiNicola explained that FirstEnergy has a vital stake in the presidential race because the company is expanding into more than a dozen northeastern states to better compete in the coming era of deregulated energy.

``We're going beyond Ohio,'' DiNicola said. ``National issues are going to be more important to us. What happens in Washington, D.C., will become increasingly important to us.

``It's important we think more of the national scope.''

Why Bush?

``In the company's opinion, one of the candidates takes a moderate approach, perhaps a more pro-business approach,'' DiNicola said. Bush ``is somebody who maybe would treat business more fairly than some of the other candidates.''

DiNicola stressed that the company did not pressure employees to contribute. ``It was made very clear that it was strictly voluntary.''

More than a half-dozen employees who contributed to Bush confirmed that their donations were freely given.

``Even if our company hadn't facilitated this, I probably would have been a contributor,'' said Timothy Flora of Copley Township, a FirstEnergy manager who donated $500.

Flora said he missed the managers meeting because of a vacation, but heard about the company's request for donations. ``There was no coercion to donate.''

William Kolosi of Stow, a FirstEnergy manager who attended the conference and gave $500, said the willingness of the employees to donate wasn't surprising.

``You'd probably find a history of Republican support within the public utility industry,'' he said. ``I have been a Republican quite some time. The platform that the Republicans stand for is what I support.''

Kolosi said Bush was the best GOP candidate ``because he has the best chance of winning.''

Although Kolosi said the managers were not told ``to go out and solicit other employees,'' the fund-raising effort apparently did extend further in the corporation.

Terry Bard of Richfield, an Illuminating Co. supervisor who gave $200, said he was asked to give to Bush ``at one of our regular staff meetings.''

The pitch was the ``same as the United Way,'' Bard said. ``If you want to contribute -- if this is the kind of person you think should be elected -- turn in a check . . . we'll take care of the mailing.''

DiNicola said FirstEnergy scrupulously avoided using corporate stationary to post the contributions.

Source is clear

But Bush campaign officials didn't need to see a FirstEnergy letterhead to know who to thank because federal law requires all contributors to disclose the name of their employer and occupations. Donors provided that information on forms FirstEnergy handed them.

As for the 17 spouses of employees, the corporate affiliation was evident because the contributions were mailed together with those of the FirstEnergy employees. Of the 111 FirstEnergy-related contributions, 107 were deposited by the Bush campaign on the same date: Aug. 18. The remaining four donations were banked on Aug. 23.

``The aim is to deliver a message that FirstEnergy is backing Bush,'' said Sheila Krumholz, research director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group based in Washington, D.C., that tracks money in politics and its effect on elections and public policy. ``It's saying, `This is how much we can deliver.'

``It makes a huge impact.''

Krumholz said there is nothing illegal about the practice -- known as ``bundling.''

``But it does violate the spirit of the law,'' she said. ``It's essentially an end run around the legal limits.''

Krumholz explained that while businesses aren't allowed to give to campaigns directly, they can sponsor political action committees that can accept employee donations.

FirstEnergy's PAC, which accepts payroll-deducted donations from employees, contributed $95,700 to dozens of congressional candidates -- a third of them Democrats -- during the 1997-98 federal election cycle.

But PACs have a downside.

``A PAC can't give more than $5,000'' to a single candidate per election, Krumholz said.

By bundling the individual contributions of employees, a company can easily exceed that cap, she said.

Of the 111 FirstEnergy contributions to Bush, 44 checks were for $1,000 -- the legal limit for individuals -- and 42 were for $500.

Impact magnified

Krumholz said the impact of bundling is magnified in this year's presidential race because of the switch to earlier primaries and caucuses in many states.

Eighteen states, including Ohio, have scheduled primaries within 30 days of New Hampshire's leadoff primary Feb. 8.

The trend to ``front-loading'' the presidential primaries gives a critical advantage to candidates who can raise large amounts of cash long before the public's attention is engaged in next year's presidential election.

No one has succeeded in doing that as well as George W. Bush.

In the first four months after kicking off his campaign in March, Bush raised more than $37 million -- almost as much as the combined total reported to the Federal Elections Commission by his 10 Republican rivals.

Bush's total also was more than double the $17.5 million reported by the Democratic front-runner, Vice President Al Gore.

Bush's fund-raising juggernaut, which reportedly reached the $56 million mark last month, has directly affected the race -- months before the first primary ballot is cast next year. The latest FEC filings are due out this week. Four GOP hopefuls, former Vice President Dan Quayle, Ohio Rep. John Kasich, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander and New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith, have dropped out of the race for the nomination.

In announcing his decision to quit last month, Quayle said there wasn't enough time to raise the money to compete in so many early primaries.

Krumholz said Quayle was facing the new reality of presidential races.

``The money has already voted,'' she said.

© Copyright 1999 The Akron Beacon Journal

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