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DECISION 2000 / AMERICA WAITS

Both Campaigns Soliciting Funds for Recount

Election: Contributions for the legal fight don't have to be disclosed, but Gore and Bush say they will do so. Nor are amounts limited by law.

November 14, 2000|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Largely unrestricted by federal election law, supporters of both major presidential candidates have launched new fund-raising efforts to pay for the ongoing battle over the Florida vote recount.

Vice President Al Gore's supporters are "well on the way" to reaching a $3-million goal for the recount committee, according to a top Gore fund-raiser who asked that he not be identified because he is not a campaign spokesman. Supporters of Texas Gov. George W. Bush also appear eager to write additional checks on his behalf.

"I think it will just come rolling in. People are so emotional about this," said Bradford Freeman, a Los Angeles merchant banker who is a top Bush fund-raiser and has been fielding scores of calls each day from supporters looking for a way to help their candidate.

The new fund-raising committees are another example of how the most expensive presidential campaign ever has not yet ended--and how money from wealthy donors continues to influence the process.

The fund-raisers' postelection job is made easier by the fact that the special recount committees do not have to play by the same rules that govern contributions to federal election campaigns. The committees can accept unlimited donations from individuals and political action committees. Even donors who have given the maximum $25,000 to federal campaigns in this election cycle can give as much as they want to the recount committees.

The two recount committees have appealed for funds, which will be used for legal and staff expenses, in very different ways. Gore fund-raisers began appealing for donations the morning after the election during a breakfast for 200 of the party's major donors, who were in Nashville to watch election returns. Checks from those supporters continue to arrive.

The Bush campaign waited until the weekend, then sent e-mail to hundreds of thousands of GOP donors and Bush supporters asking that checks be sent by overnight mail.

"Gov. Bush won the vote on election day," Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Don Evans wrote in an urgent appeal. "The expense of the recount effort must be funded immediately."

The Bush campaign's Web site opens with a call for donations. Although federal law does not require a cap, the Bush campaign has asked its donors to limit their checks to $5,000. Likewise, although there is no legal requirement that the committees disclose their donors, contributions to the Bush recount fund will be listed on the campaign's Web site as soon as they are processed, spokesman Ray Sullivan said.

Bush raised a record-breaking $100 million for his campaign but his aides have not determined how much the recount effort will cost. The campaign will refund money on a prorated basis if it raises too much, Sullivan said.

"Gov. Bush has taken the extra step by limiting what we're requesting in terms of donations and by voluntarily reporting the contributions," Sullivan said. "He always said it's important for fund-raising to be open and transparent."

Donations to the Gore fund will not be capped, but a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee said it would disclose its donors and the amount of their contributions in quarterly filings with the Federal Election Commission.

Jennifer Backus added: "We're not treating this as an extended campaign; we are just trying to get a fair and accurate count in Florida."

Much about how the recount committees should be structured remains unclear and subject to legal challenge. Election regulations do provide for such recount committees, but the only precedents come from disputed congressional elections. The only clear restriction is that corporations, unions and foreigners are not allowed to contribute to such committees.

Advocates of campaign finance reform raised eyebrows about the relatively unregulated fund-raising efforts, saying that they could "give the appearance of corruption."

"If you see million-dollar checks written to recount accounts, it's not going to bring more confidence to what is already a very tenuous process," warned Meredith McGehee, vice president of Common Cause, a Washington-based campaign finance watchdog group.

But, given the relatively small amounts of money being raised for the efforts, experts in campaign law suggested that the recount committees are not the likeliest targets for criticism or legal challenges.

"This will probably be fairly far down the list," said Trevor Potter, a former federal election commissioner.

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