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On the side of angels

Campaign-money 'bundlers' aren't necessarily bad, but we need to know who's bringing in the cash.

September 21, 2007

A ubiquitous entrepreneur raises funds for a Democratic candidate for president. Should the candidate return the gifts made possible by this financial angel?

If the angel is international man of mystery Norman Hsu and the candidate is Hillary Rodham Clinton, the answer is a no-brainer. The New York senator's campaign announced this week that it was returning $850,000 in donations "bundled" by Hsu, a prolific fundraiser who turned out to be a fugitive from a California fraud case. On Thursday, Hsu was charged with violating campaign-finance laws and overseeing a $60-million fraud.

But if the angel is Oprah Winfrey and the candidate is Barack Obama, a refund is unthinkable. Indeed, Obama's supporters have been reveling in publicity about the fabulous fundraiser the TV host threw for the Illinois senator in Montecito.

The Hsu-Winfrey comparison demonstrates why it's simplistic to see all financial angels as devils or to lament the fact that fundraising can be facilitated by middlemen or middlewomen. Yes, some contributions are more trouble than they are worth because of controversial intermediaries. That's why Clinton returned the funds passed along by Hsu and why Obama earlier this year gave to charity $40,000 raised by a longtime benefactor who was indicted on corruption charges.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 24 Editorial_pages Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Disclosure: A Friday editorial said that under a new law, registered lobbyists must disclose to the Federal Election Commission how much in campaign contributions they have "bundled" over a certain amount. In fact, the reports are filed with the FEC by a candidate's campaign committee.

These and other episodes are embarrassing and prove that politicians should approach financial benefactors with an attitude of "trust, but verify." But they are primarily an argument for more extensive disclosure of who exactly is encouraging or enabling the "little people" to contribute to a campaign. They do not make the case for an end to private contributions or curbs on Oprah Winfrey.

Under a recently enacted ethics law, registered lobbyists must disclose to the Federal Election Commission how much in contributions they have bundled over a certain amount. Not so stringent are the rules for non-lobbyists, who can slither out of reporting requirements governing individuals who serve as "conduits" for donations. Congress needs to hold all bundlers to the same standard of disclosure.

But even with a more generous system of public financing for presidential campaigns, bundlers and other financial angels will not go away. Nor should they. If Winfrey's fans take her advice on what book to read, why shouldn't they be able to heed her appeal to back Obama? Raising funds for the candidate of your choice isn't always or even usually a corrupt or self-serving act; it can be an exercise in citizenship. What matters is that the public knows not only who is signing the checks, but who is collecting and taking credit for them.

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