WASHINGTON — Eleven businessmen have been nominated as U.S. ambassadors in the last four years after contributing $100,000 or more to Republican causes, including the election of President Bush.
The 11 include Kansas City businessman Donald H. Alexander, who on Jan. 17 wrote a $100,000 check to the Republican Party. Within six weeks the White House offered him the job of U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands.
The timing of the donation to the appointment was so close that the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, controlled by the Democrats, has put off confirming Alexander.
The appointment of political donors and loyalists to be U.S. ambassadors is a practice that has its roots in the 18th Century.
But critics argue that in recent years, with the growing cost of election campaigns, the practice has become blatant checkbook diplomacy.
"Ambassadors are the eyes and voice of America abroad. If these jobs are just regarded as perks, something you can buy, it demeans the whole proposition," said Ronald Spiers, a retired diplomat and former undersecretary for management at the State Department in the Ronald Reagan Administration.
In his first round of appointments after being elected in 1988, Bush scored far better than any President since John F. Kennedy for nonpolitical appointees--56%, according to figures compiled by the Congressional Research Service. In the second wave of appointments taking place this year, only 10 of his 50 nominees have been so-called political appointees.
On average, Bush has surpassed his campaign pledge to maintain a 2-to-1 ratio of professional diplomats and political appointees, and bettered the record of his predecessor.
Of the 141 ambassadors in place on March 31, 104 were professional diplomats and 37 were non-career appointments, the research service said.
But there's another dimension: the 11 political appointees who have contributed $100,000 or more to Republican causes, including to Bush. Individual donations to candidates are limited by law to $1,000, but there is no limit to the amount of money an individual can give to the party--as long as the contribution is not earmarked for a specific candidate.
The Senate committee is looking into the records of two other recent appointments--Nicholas Salgo, who gave $502,000 in 1988 to the Republican Party in Florida and has been nominated to Sweden, and Jon Huntsman, a Utah businessman tapped as ambassador to Singapore who has "bundled" contributions from associates and forwarded them to a GOP cause. Bundling, which is legal, is the process of gathering a number of contributions from different people, then turning it over all at once, so the size of the contribution seems larger.
In Alexander's case, his $100,000 contribution came after four years during which he donated just $6,300 to political causes, according to his financial disclosure forms.
Selling an ambassadorship outright is a crime. Herbert Kalmbach, a lawyer for former President Richard M. Nixon, went to jail in 1974 after testifying that he had solicited contributions from three people who wanted to be ambassadors.
Most cases are not so clear cut.
Alexander insisted he was not asked for the donation and did not discuss it with anyone in the Administration before writing the check.
"I decided that I wanted to make a substantial contribution to the political system that I believed in . . . and I realized that the political system has to operate a certain way," he said during his June 3 confirmation hearing.
Alexander, who was born in the Netherlands and had for years wanted to return as U.S. ambassador, conceded under questioning that he knew that an earlier U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands had contributed a large sum to the Republican Party before he was named to the post by President Reagan.
About two weeks after writing the check, he called the White House and asked for The Hague ambassador's post that he knew was coming open. He was invited for an interview and about three weeks later was offered the position, according to his account.
White House aides argue that Alexander would make a good ambassador because he is fluent in the language and has an intimate knowledge of the country.
From Donor to Envoy
Eleven donors who contributed $100,000 or more to the Republican Party and were named by President Bush as ambassadors:
* Donald H. Alexander, who runs an investing firm, named in 1992 to the Netherlands.
* Charles Cobb, named in 1989 to Iceland.
* Joseph Gildenhorn, JBG Associates, real estate and construction, named in 1989 to Switzerland.
* Glen Holden, the Holden Group, health and insurance, named in 1989 to Jamaica.
* Charles Hostler, in real estate and construction, named in 1989 to Bahrain.
* Roy M. Huffington, oil and gas, named in 1990 to Austria.
* Nicholas Salgo, lawyer, named in 1992 to Sweden.
* Mel Sembler, real estate and construction, named in 1989 to Australia.
* Joy Silverman, wife of Jeffrey Silverman of Ply-Gem Industries, real estate and construction, named in 1989 to Barbados (Senate blocked nomination).
* Howard Wilkins, the Maverick Co., real estate and construction, named in 1989 to the Netherlands.
* Joseph Zappala, Zappala & Associates, real estate and construction, named in 1989 to Spain.
Source: Associated Press