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2 Groups Criticize Corporate Funding of Presidential Debate

October 17, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The financing of Wednesday night's presidential debate here came in for attack by two groups favoring campaign finance reform.

Singled out for criticism were contributions from corporations and other "fat cats" to both the Commission on Presidential Debates, the official sponsor of the debates, and the University of San Diego, where the debate was held.

Corporate sponsorship of the debates, while it may appear as a public-spirited act to promote democracy, is actually part of a strategy by the corporations to influence public policy by electing friendly politicians, said Parker Blackman, field director of Proposition 212, a campaign reform initiative on the Nov. 5 statewide ballot.

Blackman said that having corporations sponsor such debates stifles discussion about the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics.

A spokeswoman for Bank of America, one of the sponsors, rejected the allegation and said the bank helped underwrite the debate as a way to assist the University of San Diego and to showcase the city. 'It's clear that debates are part of the national political process and they need support," said Lisa Margolin-Feher.

Philip Morris, Lucent Technologies (formerly part of AT&T), Dun and Bradstreet, Sara Lee and Sprint are official sponsors of the Commission on Presidential Debates, and their contributions to the commission are tax-deductible. Created by Congress, the bipartisan commission receives no government money.

John Callahan, a spokesman for Lucent, said of the company's contribution, "We look on it like a contribution to a food bank or United Way--something to help the democratic process, and we're happy to do it."

The contributions were blasted at a news conference held by Americans Against Political Corruption and the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG) in a park near the campus theater where President Clinton and Bob Dole later engaged in their second and final debate.

Citing reports from the Federal Elections Commission, Blackman said the five commission sponsors have also contributed $6.2 million this year to federal campaigns nationwide through employee groups, political action committees and other methods. (For Lucent, AT&T figures were used.)

Using state records, Blackman said three local sponsors for the San Diego debate--Bank of America, Waste Management of North America Inc. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co.--contributed $325,684 to political campaigns during the June primary in California.

(A spokeswoman for San Diego Gas & Electric Co. said the company's only contribution to the debate was to provide a backup transformer "for safety purposes.")

CalPIRG is sponsoring Proposition 212, one of two campaign reform measures on the November ballot. It would set spending limits for local and statewide campaigns, restrict contributions from outside districts, limit out-of-district contributions, and prohibit lobbyists from making or arranging contributions.

At their debate Oct. 6, Clinton and Dole both said they favor campaign reform. Clinton reminded voters that he backed a bill that failed in Congress; Dole said he would like a commission to be established.

Derek Cressman, campaign director of Americans Against Political Corruption, said both candidates were guilty of only giving lip service to reform: "We're fed up with politicians who promise reform during the elections, but continue on with business as usual."

Contributions from corporations, labor unions, and other groups or individuals with matters pending in Washington are a perennial source of controversy during presidential campaigns. The controversy has grown this year because of the record-setting amount of money being gathered by and for the political parties and candidates.

To help drive home their point, and snatch a little coverage from the media assembled to cover the debate, CalPIRG and Americans Against Political Corruption rolled out a one-ton, 46-foot rolling pin as a backdrop at their news conference.

The rolling pin, spokesmen said, is symbolic of the need to "flatten the fat cats who have sponsored tonight's debate and this fall's elections."

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