Fred D. Thompson, who is campaigning for president as an antiabortion Republican, accepted an assignment from a family-planning group to lobby the first Bush White House to ease a controversial abortion restriction, according to a 1991 document and several people familiar with the matter.
A spokesman for the former Tennessee senator denied that Thompson did the lobbying work. But the minutes of a 1991 board meeting of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn. say that the group hired Thompson that year.
His task was to urge the administration of President George H. W. Bush to withdraw or relax a rule that barred abortion counseling at clinics that received federal money, according to the records and to people who worked on the matter.
The abortion "gag rule" was then a major political flashpoint. Lobbying against the rule would have placed Thompson at odds with the antiabortion movement that he is now trying to rally behind his expected declaration of a presidential bid.
Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo adamantly denied that Thompson worked for the family planning group. "Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period," he said in an e-mail.
In a telephone interview, he added: "There's no documents to prove it, there's no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it, says it didn't happen." In a separate interview, John H. Sununu, the White House official whom the family planning group wanted to contact, said he had no memory of the lobbying and doubted it took place.
But Judith DeSarno, who was president of the family planning association in 1991, said Thompson lobbied for the group for several months.
Minutes from the board's meeting of Sept. 14, 1991 -- a copy of which DeSarno gave to The Times -- say: "Judy [DeSarno] reported that the association had hired Fred Thompson Esq. as counsel to aid us in discussions with the administration" on the abortion counseling rule.
Former Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), a colleague at the lobbying and law firm where Thompson worked, said that DeSarno had asked him to recommend someone for the lobbying work and that he had suggested Thompson. He said it was "absolutely bizarre" for Thompson to deny that he lobbied against the abortion counseling rule.
"I talked to him while he was doing it, and I talked to [DeSarno] about the fact that she was very pleased with the work that he was doing for her organization," said Barnes. "I have strong, total recollection of that. This is not something I dreamed up or she dreamed up. This is fact."
DeSarno said that Thompson, after being hired, reported to her that he had held multiple conversations about the abortion rule with Sununu, who was then the White House chief of staff and the president's point man on the rule.
Thompson kept her updated on his progress in telephone conversations and over meals at Washington restaurants, including dinner at Galileo and lunch at the Monocle, she said. At one of the meals, she recalled, Thompson told her that Sununu had just given him tickets for a VIP tour of the White House for a Thompson son and his wife.
"It would be an odd thing for me to construct that thing out of whole cloth," DeSarno said. "It happened, and I think it's quite astonishing they're denying it."
Sununu said in a telephone interview: "I don't recall him ever lobbying me on that at all. I don't think that ever happened. In fact, I know that never happened." He added that he had "absolutely no idea" whether Thompson had met with anybody else at the White House, but said it would have been a waste of time, given the president's opposition to abortion rights.
In response to Sununu's denial, DeSarno said Thompson "owes NFPRHA a bunch of money" if he never talked to Sununu as he said he had.
At the time, Thompson was a lobbyist and lawyer "of counsel" to the Washington firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn.
DeSarno said the family planning association paid the firm for Thompson's work. Marc L. Fleischaker, chairman of Arent Fox, declined to comment.
Corallo, the spokesman for Thompson, was asked Friday about the board minutes and the five people who said they recalled Thompson accepting the lobbying assignment. He responded in an e-mail, saying that Thompson "may have been consulted by one of [his] firm's partners who represented this group in 1991."
Corallo said it was "not unusual for one lawyer on one side of an issue to be asked to give advice to colleagues for clients who engage in conduct or activities with which they personally disagree."
Any work that Thompson did to challenge the abortion rule could complicate his appeals to conservatives in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. He reportedly plans to join the race this month.