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Profile: Republicans for Clean Air

a.k.a. RFCA

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Republicans for Clean Air was a participant or observer in the following events:

Sam Wyly.Sam Wyly. [Source: Forbes]A group called “Republicans for Clean Air” begins running ads attacking Republican presidential candidate John McCain in New York. The ads accuse McCain of voting against alternative energy sources. At the same time, ads paid for by the campaign of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush accuse McCain of labeling breast cancer programs as wasteful. Governor George Pataki (R-NY) accuses McCain of voting “anti-New York” in the Senate, while Representative John Sweeney (R-NY) says McCain was wrong to vote for raising heating oil taxes, a major issue in cold-weather states such as New York. [Salon, 3/2/2000] The group also runs ads in primary states claiming that Bush, as Texas governor, passed laws intended to reduce air pollution in Texas by over a quarter-million tons a year. The evidence does not support the claim; what few anti-pollution laws have taken effect in Texas were written mostly by Democratic state legislators and signed into law, often reluctantly, by Bush.
RFCA Consists of Two Texas Billionaires - An investigation by the New York Times soon proves that “Republicans for Clean Air” (RFCA) is funded by Dallas billionaire Sam Wyly, a Bush supporter, who has contributed $2.5 million to the group. Wyly and his brother Charles Wyly, also a RFCA contributor, are the co-founders of Sterling Software in Dallas. They are also owners, founders, or executives in firms that own Bonanza Steakhouse, the “Michael’s” chain of arts and craft stores, the hedge fund Maverick Capital, and more. Both are heavy Bush campaign donors, having donated over $210,000 to the Bush gubernatorial campaigns. They are apparently the only two members of the RFCA. Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice says of Sam Wyly: “He’s one of the elite. He’s one of the movers and shakers. He’s very big money in the state.” McCain’s campaign accuses the Bush campaign of being responsible for the advertising, and says the Bush campaign is trying to evade campaign finance laws (see February 7, 1972 and May 11, 1992). The McCain campaign complains that the Bush campaign is using unethical and possibly illegal campaign tactics to “steal” the primary election by saturating New York, California, and Ohio with anti-McCain ads just days before the primary elections in those critical states. “There is no question in our campaign’s mind that the ads are being sponsored, coordinated, and managed by the George Bush for President campaign,” says McCain’s campaign manager Rick Davis. “I think it’s incumbent on the Bush campaign to prove somehow that they are not involved in this incredible act.” Davis has no direct evidence for his claim, but cites what the Times calls “a tangle of personal, business, and political relationships between Mr. Wyly and his family and the Bush campaign to suggest that their interests were so close as to be indistinguishable.” One of those relationships cited by Davis is the fact that RFCA uses the same public relations firm, Multi Media Services Corporation, as Pataki, who chairs the Bush campaign in New York and who appears in Bush campaign ads. Bush himself denies any connection with RFCA, and says: “There is no coordination.… I had no idea the ad was going to run.” Wyly also disclaims any coordination with the Bush campaign. He says he laughed during the production of the commercials, and mused over how “surprised” the Bush campaign would be to see them on the airwaves. McCain uses the ads to draw attention to one of his favorite campaign themes, campaign finance reform. On a recent morning talk show, McCain said: “I think maybe the Bush campaign is out of money and somebody’s putting in $2 million to try to hijack the campaign here in New York. Nobody knows where it came from. [When McCain filmed the interview, Wyly’s identity had not been revealed.] We’ll probably find out, but probably too late. This is why campaign finance reform is so important.” [New York Times, 3/3/2000; New York Times, 3/4/2000; New York Times, 3/5/2000; San Jose Mercury News, 3/6/2000; Scott E. Thomas and Danny Lee McDonald, 4/2002; New York Times, 8/23/2010] The press soon learns that Charles Wyly is an official member of the Bush presidential campaign, as a “Pioneer” donor, and has contributed the maximum amount under the law. [New York Times, 3/4/2000] It also learns that RFCA’s stated address is a post office box in Virginia belonging to Lydia Meuret, a consultant who runs a political action committee headed by Representative Henry Bonilla (R-TX), a Bush ally. Meuret denies any connection between RFCA and Bonilla or Bonilla’s PAC, but admits she is a consultant to both. [New York Times, 3/3/2000]
'527' Group Operates in Campaign Finance Law 'Gray Areas' - RFCA is a “527” group (see 2000 - 2005); such groups operate in a “gray area” of campaign law, as the monies they use are not contributed directly to a candidate or a political party. However, they are banned from coordinating their efforts with candidate campaigns. Their ads must not make direct appeals to voters in support of, or opposition to, a particular candidate. If they comply with this portion of the law, the donors behind the ads, and the amounts they contribute, do not have to be identified. The law does not even require the groups to declare their existence, as was the case for a time with RFCA. The Times reports, “While some of the groups behind issue advertising are vague about their membership, Mr. Wyly’s effort was a rare instance in which commercials were aired without any hint of their origin.” Fred Wertheimer of Democracy 21, a group advocating campaign finance reform, says of so-called “issue” ads such as these: “The secrecy aspects of this are taking campaign finance problems to yet another new and dangerous level. What we’re seeing here is the use of unlimited, undisclosed money to influence a federal election, and that’s totally at odds with the whole notion of campaign finance disclosure.” [New York Times, 3/3/2000; San Jose Mercury News, 3/6/2000; New York Times, 3/29/2000; New York Times, 8/23/2010] Progressive columnist Molly Ivins calls the RFCA ads examples of “sham issue” advertisements. [San Jose Mercury News, 3/6/2000]
Bush Claims RFCA Ads Not Helpful - After Bush secures the nomination over McCain, he tells a reporter, “I don’t think these [Republicans for Clean Air] ads are particularly helpful to me.” But Slate reporter Chris Suellentrop writes: “Of course they were helpful. Otherwise Bush would have called the group and told them to call off the dogs.” [Slate, 8/25/2000]
Wyly Brothers Will Fund 2004 'Swift Boat' Campaign, Later Charged with Securities Fraud, Insider Trading - A month after the ads air, Sam Wyly says he will no longer involve himself in politics. Wyly, who says he is a staunch environmentalist, says he admires Bush’s Democratic challenger, Vice President Al Gore (whom Wyly has called a regulation-happy environmentalist, and whom Wyly has considered attacking with television ads). Of his foray into the presidential campaign, Wyly says: “I learned from it. Many of you are aware of my recent foray into presidential politics. It is to be my last.” In 2004, the Wyly brothers will be two of the primary donors behind the “Swift Boat” campaign that will slander and impugn the character and military service of presidential candidate John Kerry (D-MA). In 2010, the Wyly brothers will be charged with securities fraud and insider trading that netted them at least $581 million in illegal gains, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission. [New York Times, 4/5/2000; New York Times, 8/23/2010]

Entity Tags: George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, Charles Wyly, Sam Wyly, George E. Pataki, Fred Wertheimer, George W. Bush, Chris Suellentrop, Rick Davis, Albert Arnold (“Al”) Gore, Jr., New York Times, John McCain, John Kerry, John E. Sweeney, John McCain presidential campaign 2000, Henry Bonilla, Lydia Meuret, Molly Ivins, Republicans for Clean Air

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties

The New York Times publishes an unsigned editorial criticizing the recent use of campaign ads by the George W. Bush presidential campaign against Bush’s Republican rival, John McCain. “[T]he tactics being employed by supporters of George W. Bush against Senator John McCain should be of serious concern to every New Yorker in regard to the integrity of politics in this state and in regard to the nation’s inadequate campaign-finance laws,” the editorial states. It refers to a recent spate of “purportedly independent television ads” aired in New York and elsewhere by a group called “Republicans for Clean Air” (see March 2000 and After). Those ads were paid for by Texas billionaire Sam Wyly, a close political friend and donor of the Bush family. The Times does not believe the Bush campaign’s contention that the airing, and the timing, of the Wyly ads was nothing more than “a happy accident,” and calls for an investigation by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). Moreover, the ad campaign “points up a fundamental flaw in the nation’s election laws,” the Times says. The 1996 presidential campaign was marred by questionable expenditures by groups on behalf of both the Democratic and Republican campaigns. While the Clinton and Dole campaigns both disavowed any knowledge of or coordination with those groups, and the ads left out what the Times calls “the magic words ‘vote for‘… any reasonable viewer” would discern that the ads were promoting the sponsoring group’s candidate. The Times calls the practice a “subterfuge” that threatens “the integrity of future elections.” It concludes, quoting McCain: “[A]llowing wealthy individuals to flood the airwaves with ads promoting their chosen candidates in the final days of a campaign ‘distorts the process’ and gives a small class of wealthy Americans a financial license to sway close elections without being accountable to the public.… [I]n the long run, the country needs full public financing. [New York Times, 3/6/2000]

Entity Tags: John McCain presidential campaign 2000, George W. Bush, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, John McCain, Sam Wyly, New York Times, Republicans for Clean Air

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties

The presidential campaign of Senator John McCain (R-AZ) files a formal complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging improper campaign contributions by two of the biggest financial backers of McCain’s rival presidential primary contender, Governor George W. Bush (R-TX). The backers, Texas billionaires Charles and Sam Wyly, spent $2.5 million on television ads airing in New York, Ohio, and California created by a group called “Republicans for Clean Air” (RFCA—see March 2000 and After). McCain’s campaign alleges that the Bush campaign illegally coordinated its efforts with RFCA to air the ads in the days before critical primary elections. Bush has denied any knowledge of the ads, and has said his campaign had no contact with the group. McCain’s complaint notes that Charles Wyly has already contributed the maximum amount allowed by law and holds an official position in the Bush campaign. McCain says at a campaign rally in California, “We ask Governor Bush to do what he refused to do, tell his sleazy Texas buddies to stop these negative ads and take their money back to Texas where it belongs, and don’t try to corrupt American politics with your money.” The McCain campaign also files an emergency complaint with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which McCain oversees as chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, asserting that the advertisements violate the Communications Act by failing to properly identify the true sponsor. The FCC declines to intervene. Bush campaign spokesperson Karen Hughes says McCain’s complaints are “irresponsible” and “shameful. He should be ashamed. He has not one shred of evidence. The governor has personally said our campaign did not coordinate, our campaign knew nothing about the ad until a member of the media asked us about the ad, and Senator McCain should be ashamed of tossing around scurrilous accusations like that.” [New York Times, 3/7/2000] The FEC will vote not to investigate the complaint. [Scott E. Thomas and Danny Lee McDonald, 4/2002]

Entity Tags: John McCain presidential campaign 2000, Federal Election Commission, Federal Communications Commission, Charles Wyly, George W. Bush, John McCain, Republicans for Clean Air, George W. Bush presidential campaign 2000, Karen Hughes, Sam Wyly

Timeline Tags: 2000 Elections, Civil Liberties

The Senate approves bipartisan legislation, the so-called “Stealth PAC” bill, that requires secretive tax-exempt organizations that raise and spend money on political activities to reveal their donors and expenditures. The so-called “527” organizations have flourished because until now, Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code has protected both their nonprofit status and their right to keep their donors and funding information secret (see 2000 - 2005). President Clinton will sign the bill into law. It is the first major legislative change in American campaign finance law in two decades (see January 8, 1980). Under the new law, Section 527 organizations raising over $25,000 a year must comply with federal campaign law, file tax returns, disclose the identities of anyone contributing over $200, and report expenditures in excess of $500. That information will be reported to the IRS every three months during an election year, and the information will be posted on the Internet. The bill takes effect as soon as Clinton signs it into law.
Passed Despite Republican Opposition - The House passed the bill on a 385-39 vote; only six Senate Republicans vote against the bill. Senate and House Republican leaders have blocked the bill for months. Clinton says, “Passage of this bill proves that public interest can triumph over special interests,” and urges Congress to pass a more comprehensive overhaul of campaign finance law. Senator Russ Feingold (D-WI) says, “I’m not pretending we don’t have other loopholes to close, but those groups that have found this an easy, painless way to go on the attack are now going to have to scramble to figure out different ways.” Some ways that groups will avoid the requirements of the new law are to reorganize themselves as for-profit organizations—thus losing their tax exemptions—or trying to reorganize as other types of nonprofits. Many expect donors to rush big contributions to these 527 groups before the new law takes effect. Mike Castle (R-DE), a House Republican who supports the bill, says, “I am sure that the phones are ringing over on K Street right now about how to get money into the 527s before they are eliminated.” Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who helped Senate Republicans block the bill and who voted no on its passage, now calls it a “relatively benign bill,” downplaying his stiff opposition to the bill and to campaign finance regulation in general. McConnell advised Republicans up for re-election in November 2000 to vote yes for the bill “to insulate them against absurd charges that they are in favor of secret campaign contributions or Chinese money or Mafia money.” McConnell explains that he voted against the bill because it infringes on freedom of speech (see December 15, 1986). Governor George W. Bush (R-TX), the GOP’s presidential candidate, issues a statement supporting the bill: “As I have previously stated, I believe these third-party groups should have to disclose who is funding their ads. As the only candidate to fully disclose contributors on a daily basis, I have always been a strong believer in sunshine and full disclosure.” Bush defeated Republican challenger John McCain (R-AZ) in part because of the efforts of Republicans for Clean Air, a 527 group headed by Bush financier Sam Wyly and which spent $2.5 million attacking McCain’s environmental record (see March 2000 and After). McCain helped push the current bill through the Senate, and says: “This bill will not solve what is wrong with our campaign finance system. But it will give the public information regarding one especially pernicious weapon used in modern campaigns.”
527s Used by Both Parties - Both Democrats and Republicans have created and used 527 groups, which are free from federal oversight as long as they do not advocate for or against a specific candidate. The organizations use donations for polling, advertising, telephone banks, and direct-mail appeals, but are not subject to federal filing or reporting rules as long as they do not advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate. Some groups, such as the Republican Majority Issues Committee, a 527 organization aligned with House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-TX), intend to continue functioning as usual even after the bill is signed into law, while they examine their legal options. The committee head, Karl Gallant, says his organization will “continue on our core mission to give conservative voters a voice in the upcoming elections.” The Republican Majority Issues Committee is considered DeLay’s personal PAC, or political action committee; it is expected to funnel as much as $25 million into closely contested races between now and Election Day. Gallant says the organization will comply with the new law, but complains, “We are deeply concerned that Congress has placed the regulation of free speech in the hands of the tax collectors.” He then says: “We’re not going anywhere. You will have RMIC to amuse and delight you throughout the election cycle.” The Sierra Club’s own 527 organization, the Environmental Voter Education Campaign, says it will also comply “eagerly” with the new law, and will spend some $8 million supporting candidates who match the Sierra Club’s pro-environmental stance. “We will eagerly comply with the new law as soon as it takes effect,” says the Sierra Club’s Dan Weiss. “But it’s important to note that while we strongly support the passage of this reform, 527 money is just the tip of the soft-money iceberg. Real reform would mean banning all soft-money contributions to political parties.” Another 527 group affected by the new law is Citizens for Better Medicare, which has already spent $30 million supporting Republican candidates who oppose a government-run prescription drug benefit. Spokesman Dan Zielinski says the group may change or abandon its 527 status in light of the new law. “The coalition is not going away,” he says. “We will comply with whatever legal requirements are necessary. We’ll do whatever the lawyers say we have to do.” A much smaller 527, the Peace Voter Fund, a remnant of the peace movement of the 1970s and 80s, says it intends to engage in voter education and issue advocacy in about a dozen Congressional races. Executive director Van Gosse says the group will follow the new law and continue as before: “Disclosure of donors is not a major issue for us. So we’ll just say to donors in the future that they will be subject to federal disclosure requirements. It’s no biggie.” [New York Times, 6/30/2000; OMB Watch, 4/1/2002; Huffington Post, 9/28/2010]

Entity Tags: Karl Gallant, John McCain, Environmental Voter Education Campaign, Dan Zielinski, Dan Weiss, Citizens for Better Medicare, Van Gosse, US Senate, William Jefferson (“Bill”) Clinton, George W. Bush, Republican Majority Issues Committee, Republicans for Clean Air, Peace Voter Fund, Mike Castle, Mitch McConnell, Tom DeLay, Sierra Club, Sam Wyly, Russell D. Feingold

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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