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COLUMN ONE : Campaign Gifts Flow From Rich : Donations to candidates are again unrestrained and the law virtually unenforced. Some of the heaviest spenders are over their legal limit.

April 18, 1990|SARA FRITZ and DWIGHT MORRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Over the past three years, as Congress debated legislation to limit hostile business takeovers, Texas corporate takeover specialist Harold C. Simmons and his family pumped more than $250,000 into the campaign coffers of key federal office-seekers. In the process, Simmons' contributions more than doubled the legal limit on political giving by the very rich.

Simmons made more than $120,000 in personal contributions to President Bush and members of Congress who were in a position to influence legislation governing corporate takeovers.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 5, 1990 Home Edition Part A Page 2 Column 2 National Desk 2 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
Hunt contribution--The Times reported on April 18 that Texas oilman Ray Hunt made $17,000 in federally regulated contributions to candidates in 1988 and $10,000 in soft money contributions, which are not regulated by the Federal Election Commission. The $10,000 was not a soft money contribution, but has since been credited to his wife, Nancy, in FEC records.

He gave $59,958 just to candidates seeking election in 1988, more than double the $25,000 limit. His relatives, after consulting with Simmons, gave to a similar list of candidates for public office after consulting with Simmons.

At the same time, Simmons proved an effective force in Congress. Campaign contributions and tireless lobbying by Simmons and others of the nation's biggest corporate raiders, according to congressional sources, have played a big role in blocking legislation that would have severely restricted leveraged buyouts and other hostile takeovers.

While Simmons is a leader among wealthy patrons of the American political system, he is certainly not the only millionaire who exceeded civil limits established by a Watergate-era law designed to prevent the rich from exerting undue influence on the political system.

A Times study, which used computer searches of federal election reports to focus on the political giving habits of more than 100 of the nation's wealthiest and most influential citizens, found that at least nine others also exceeded the legal limit during the 1988 election campaign.

The nine others were corporate buyout specialists Ronald O. Perelman, Meshulam Riklis and Henry Kravis; Kravis' brother, Raymond; Riklis' son, Ira; Manhattan developer Donald Trump; grain trader Dwayne O. Andreas, and his wife, Dorothy Inez, and Caroline Rose Hunt, daughter of the late Texas oilman H.L. Hunt.

Kravis, like Simmons, exceeded the limit by more than 100%, according to federal records.

When contacted by The Times, spokesmen for each of these rich contributors acknowledged the accuracy of the records.

"I can't make the problem go away," said John Garrett, Simmons' lawyer, after reviewing his client's canceled checks and contribution records.

Spokesmen for most of the other nine donors asserted that the violations were inadvertent. A few pointed out that they had exceeded the limit only by a few hundred or a few thousand dollars.

These heavy contributors are the sorts of people who have important business and financial interests affected by decisions made in Washington by officials they help to elect. So enormous have such contributions become that many of the congressional recipients of the largess are beginning to worry about the consequences and to agitate for reform.

"There is too much money in politics; there is too much special-interest influence," declared Sen. David L. Boren (D-Okla.), who himself has received thousands of dollars from these contributors and is leading the drive for reform. "It's an open invitation to corruption."

Ironically, the records suggest, wealthy individuals are giving even more money to presidential and congressional candidates than they did two decades ago when Congress enacted a law intended to restrain political contributions by the very rich.

Example of Donations

The Bass family of Ft. Worth, for example, distributed close to $700,000 to a variety of candidates for federal office over the past three years--most of them defenders of Texas oil interests. Many others doled out contributions of as much as $100,000 to a single presidential candidate.

The Times review of federal and state campaign records shows that political giving by the rich is now largely unrestrained.

Even many of those who technically abide by the $25,000 limit seem to have found other ways to channel additional money to candidates. Some have relatives who contribute to a similar collection of candidates. Some make so-called "soft money"--contributions to presidential and congressional candidates that are not limited by law because they are forwarded to state political parties for party-building activities.

Among the givers who used one or both of those entirely legal techniques for giving more than $25,000 were the Bass family; Hollywood executive Lew R. Wasserman; Disney executives Michael D. Eisner, Frank G. Wells and Jeffrey Katzenberg; Chicago industrialist Lester Crown, and several descendants of the late Texas oilman, H.L. Hunt.

Although Wasserman and the Bass family have been fined in the past by the Federal Election Commission for their unrestrained giving to political candidates, FEC officials acknowledge that they do not adequately monitor compliance with the limits on individual donations. A search through federal records shows no penalties exceeding $250.

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