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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Legal Roles in Campaigns Put Spotlight on Shadow Groups

August 26, 2004|Lisa Getter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth asked Republican lawyer Benjamin Ginsberg for legal advice in July, he said he had no doubt it was something he could do legally.

After all, he said Wednesday, his cohorts on the Democratic side had represented the Kerry campaign and independent groups that had spent tens of millions of dollars in advertising "without a peep" from other lawyers or the media.

Indeed, Ginsberg's role as a national counsel for the Bush campaign and for a so-called 527 group supporting the president is not unusual this election cycle. But it is drawing a larger spotlight on the independent groups that have become influential and raised tens of millions of dollars in this presidential race.

The law firm of Perkins Coie, which represents the Kerry-Edwards campaign (and also had represented the presidential campaigns of Sen. Joe Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt) also represents America Coming Together, one of the largest 527 groups working to help elect Kerry.

And Joseph Sandler, the top outside counsel for the Democratic National Committee, also represents MoveOn.org Voter Fund, another liberal independent group backing the Democratic ticket.

The 527 groups -- named after the federal tax code that created them -- emerged this year in the wake of a new campaign finance law that prohibited corporate and union donations to political parties, as well as imposed a cap on donations from individuals.

Before Ginsberg's resignation from the Bush campaign Wednesday, Sandler had defended his colleague's right to represent both the campaign and the Swift boat group.

But Wednesday, he referred questions to the DNC, which had a different take on the matter. Spokesman Jano Cabrera scoffed at any comparison between Ginsberg's situation and Sandler's.

"This isn't even comparable," Cabrera said. "The issue isn't whether a lawyer can have multiple clients. The issue is one of deception. It has been publicly known for six years that Joe Sandler also serves as counsel to MoveOn.org. By contrast, the Bush campaign repeatedly denied that any staff, including their legal counsel, had any ties to the Swift boat group. Later it was discovered they were misleading the American people once again."

Ginsberg said he was the target of a "smear campaign" from the Kerry camp for "doing exactly what their lawyers are doing."

Ginsberg helped draft a complaint to the Federal Election Commission this year that alleged illegal coordination between the Kerry campaign and the 527 groups that were raising money to help oust Bush.

The groups contend campaign finance laws that restrict unlimited cash from donors, corporations and unions do not apply to them.

Ginsberg argued in the complaint that the groups were violating election law. He also cited an extensive network of ties between the people working for the groups and the Kerry campaign, alleging it was an illegal conspiracy.

Among those named in the complaint were Harold Ickes, founder of America Coming Together, and a DNC executive committee member; Jim Jordan, who was Kerry's campaign manager before forming Thunder Road Group, a media firm that represents America Coming Together and the Media Fund; Minyon Moore, a member of America Coming Together's executive committee and a Kerry campaign consultant; and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, an officer in another Democratic 527 who was chairman of the Democratic National Convention.

But the complaint did not mention lawyers.

After Ginsberg had acknowledged giving legal advice to another Republican 527 called Progress for America, he said the FEC complaint specifically left out lawyers because election law did not cite legal services as an area in which there could be illegal coordination.

(When the FEC decided in May not to rein in the 527s in the 2004 election, Ginsberg and others told Republicans that it was OK after all to collect money for such groups.)

Angry over the publicity that led him to resign from his post at the Bush campaign -- a position that has paid his law firm more than $250,000 this election cycle -- Ginsberg said he was the victim of "an incredible media double standard."

As for what he would do next, he said he would continue helping the president in his reelection effort, even if it meant licking stamps and stuffing envelopes.

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