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A reason for A-listers to go on the stump

August 24, 2007|TINA DAUNT

IMAGINE this scenario: A billionaire says to a celebrity, "I'll donate a few million dollars to the charity of your choice if you'll headline a political fundraiser I'm having for the candidate of my choice."

It could be a way to raise a lot of money for charity -- and possibly bring in more celebrities to political campaigns. Whether the second part is a good thing or not is a matter of some debate.

But apparently it will be a reality, given new federal campaign regulations engineered on behalf of TV mogul Michael King, longtime Democratic backer and friend of the Clintons. Last month, the Federal Election Commission voted 4 to 1 to allow King -- the guy who developed "Hollywood Squares," "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Oprah Winfrey Show" -- to donate money to charity in exchange for celebrity involvement in federal campaigns.

In other words, if a candidate's rich friends donate to an entertainer's favorite cause -- and there are lots of them these days -- then as a quid pro quo celebrities could perform or headline a fundraiser for a particular candidate. Given Hollywood's political bent, the beneficiaries of the new FEC rule will for the most part be Democrats, although King's Washington attorney, Marc E. Elias, said that that was not the intention of the new provision.

"This will benefit charities doing good work," Elias said. If they're able to tap into the excitement of the presidential campaign and raise money for, say, the people of Darfur, who would object, Elias said.

King, he noted, intends to donate his cash to charities that help returning Iraq war veterans and their families.

"To me it's a win-win," said one Hollywood political advisor. "More money goes to charities while the celebrities make the events more interesting."

Not everyone likes the idea. Some are wondering if the FEC has created a campaign finance loophole large enough to swallow Tom Cruise's location trailer.

"I have to admit that I'd rather see U2 than Paul Williams," said longtime Los Angeles political consultant Rick Taylor. "But this is ridiculous. . . . If celebrities really want to get involved, they should just donate their time like everyone else.

"I'm a Democrat, and I want us to have every advantage, but this sends the wrong message. What makes celebrities so much more special?"

But King sees it differently: Celebrities have tremendous power in the public arena. Many are involved. But still more could participate. So why not support and encourage them by giving to their favorite charities?

Big-name entertainers, particularly musicians, are huge draws for political fundraisers, but they're notoriously hard to sign up. Often, they change their minds at the last minute, leaving organizers in a bind. For example, organizers of a fundraiser for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton at Ron Burkle's house last spring worked intensely to get a Grammy-worthy lineup of performers for their event. They couldn't work out the logistics and ended up playing a CD of Merle Haggard singing a song he had written for Clinton.

There are also legal limits on what people can give to their favorite candidates but no restrictions on what they can give to a favorite charity. If the musicians and stars would be willing to guarantee their appearance at a candidate's fundraiser, organizers could advertise and pack very big houses with people paying the individual campaign cap of $2,300.

The FEC, whose two Republican members voted in favor of King's request, decided that the donations "would be neither contributions to the campaigns and political committees nor compensation to the performers" and therefore completely legal. Commissioner Steven Walther, one of the three Democrats on the FEC, voted against the ruling because it "seems like a true quid-pro-quo situation."

"If a person really wanted to be a contributor, there wouldn't be any need to give money to the charity -- the entertainer would be there doing it regardless," he said. "Mr. King will be getting a charitable deduction [for his contribution to an entertainer's charity] . . . but the underlying consideration here is the fact that money is being paid."

Although the FEC approved King's request July 12, word is just starting to get out in Hollywood's fundraising circles. When the Hollywood politicos return from the Hamptons or the Vineyard next month, they'll find that they have a big new lever for getting A-listers involved.

Who needs a great stump speech when all you have to do is book the right act?


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