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GOP's Point Man in Donor Probe Knows Big Money

Finances: The fund-raising system and a controversial giver have benefited Sen. Thompson as well as Clinton.


WASHINGTON — If anyone has been set up to be the white knight in the Democratic Party fund-raising debacle, it is Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican better known as a scowling actor in such action films as "Die Hard 2."

An outspoken advocate of campaign reform, Thompson is now cast as chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign money-grubbing. In true Hollywood fashion, he promised on the Senate floor last month that he would "let the chips fall where they may."

Records show, however, that Thompson--who has perfected the image of a tough-talking Washington outsider--has reaped major benefits from the big-money fund-raising system that he and his fellow senators will be exploring.

Thompson has received backing from one controversial figure who already has proven an embarrassment for the Clinton White House: Farhad Azima, a Kansas City businessman whose companies have had numerous run-ins with regulators from the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Aviation Administration. Over the years, he has also been linked--unfairly and without proof, he says--to shadowy stories about arms smuggling.

Azima attended three coffees with Clinton in the White House Map Room in the last two years. He is among a number of participants whose presence has raised thorny questions about whether the Democrats sacrificed propriety in their quest for funds. Few heavy Democratic donors attended as many coffees as Azima, who is a registered Republican.

Records and interviews also show that Azima is a former law client, business associate, personal friend and political supporter of Thompson, who himself has been touted as a presidential hopeful. Azima staged a fund-raiser for Thompson, who chartered his jet during the 1996 campaign--as did prominent Democrats.

'Nobody's Really Clean'

Such overlap shows that "nobody's really clean" when it comes to political fund-raising, said Larry J. Sabato, a campaign finance expert at the University of Virginia. The number of significant donors nationwide is so small--about 50,000--that both parties are forced to hit up the same people, even those with questionable pasts.

"I wouldn't call it hypocrisy, but it certainly explains how the system works," Sabato said. "It just proves there are no saints in politics and that's not news to most Americans."

To be sure, there is no indication that Thompson's campaign engaged in the kind of fund-raising activity that has prompted the Democratic National Committee to return $1.5 million in illegal or suspect contributions, some of them from foreign sources, and led to allegations of wider abuses involving the Clinton White House.

Tom Daffron, Thompson's Senate chief of staff, said that Azima was one donor among thousands who contributed $5 million to Thompson's 1996 reelection campaign.

"In a perfect world you'd like to do a complete background check on everybody who gives you more than $200 but that's not very practical," Daffron said Wednesday. "You solicit funds and you always hope they're given to you by good, honorable, God-fearing, law-abiding citizens."

Reforming political campaigning has been a frequent theme of Thompson's since he was elected to the Senate in the 1994 Republican tidal wave. Well-known for his tough-guy parts in 17 movies such as "The Hunt for Red October" and "In The Line of Fire," Thompson capitalized on anti-Washington sentiment by driving around his state in a red pickup truck during his campaign.

Yet Thompson had been a Beltway insider for years. As a lobbyist, he represented both domestic and foreign interests, such as the ousted president of Haiti and Toyota Motor Co. Before that, as the lead Republican staff member of the Senate Watergate Committee, he uncovered the secret White House taping system that proved to be President Richard Nixon's downfall.

In his reelection bid last fall, he received more than $1 million from political action committees, including substantial contributions from pharmaceutical, tobacco and chemical interests.

During that campaign, Thompson also received donations totaling about $24,000 from U.S. subsidiaries of British firms. Such contributions are permitted but became controversial late in the 1996 election campaign as attention focused on the Democrats' foreign-linked money.

His 1994 campaign for the last two years of Vice President Al Gore's former Senate seat was bolstered by a $177,000 independent expenditure from the National Rifle Assn., among the largest sums spent on behalf of any candidate by a single interest group in that election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

"Everybody who has been successful in politics has come to hold office through the system that now exists," Daffron said. "All the fund-raising we did was legal."

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