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CAMPAIGN '08

Billionaire behind Swift Boat ads funded anti-Obama spot

The TV ad focuses on the candidate's ties to a former radical.

August 23, 2008|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who helped pay for the devastating attacks on the military record of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry in 2004, has paid for a television ad that assails Barack Obama over his ties to a founder of a violent radical group.

Simmons, who is also a major fundraiser for John McCain, donated $2.87 million that a newly formed nonprofit group, the American Issues Project, has used for the ad, a report filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission shows.

The 60-second ad opens with Obama giving a speech, then asks how much voters know about him.

From there, it focuses on his relationship with William Ayers, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who more than three decades ago was deeply involved with the Weather Underground, which claimed responsibility for numerous bombings.

The American Issues Project is airing the commercial in Ohio and Michigan, where Obama and McCain are locked in tight contests.

Obama's campaign responded to the ad by sending a letter to the Justice Department charging that the backers are violating criminal law and urging an investigation. Obama's attorneys also are calling on television stations not to air the spot.

The national Fox News Network has declined to air it, but several Fox affiliates in Ohio and Michigan are showing it.

"It's on tons of stations in Michigan and Ohio," said Christian Pinkston, a Washington consultant overseeing the effort.

"It is a battleground-state strategy."

Pinkston and Simmons were both involved with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the group that ran ads questioning the Vietnam record of Kerry, a decorated veteran. Simmons was Swift Boat's second-largest donor, giving $3 million.

Simmons has donated at least $4.5 million to federal campaigns in the past decade, Federal Election Commission records show.

Simmons was No. 43 on the 2007 Forbes list of richest Americans, with a net worth estimated at $7.4 billion. Known as a corporate raider, Simmons has been nicknamed "the Ice Man." He acquired his wealth by investing in drugstores, steel, garbage collection and other entities. He could not be reached for comment.

On its website, McCain's campaign discloses that Simmons has raised between $50,000 and $100,000 for the Republican candidate.

Simmons also has given direct contributions to McCain and McCain-related committees totaling $17,300 since the presidential campaign began last year. A political action committee affiliated with one of Simmons' companies has donated $18,500 to McCain committees.

The anti-Obama ad that Simmons funded notes that the Sept. 11 hijackers failed to crash one of the hijacked jets into the Capitol but that 30 years earlier the Weather Underground detonated a bomb in it. "Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol and is proud of it?" the ad asks.

Ayers was never prosecuted for any of the Weather Underground bombings; charges were dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Under federal law, it would be illegal for McCain to have had a hand in the ad, and McCain's campaign has denied involvement.

Obama attorney Robert F. Bauer charged in a letter to the Justice Department that the American Issues Project is engaging in a "willful attempt to evade the strictures of federal election law."

The group claims tax- exempt status.

Bauer noted that the law limits the ability of such committees to expressly advocate for the defeat or election of a candidate.

Instead, he charged, the group should be operating as a political organization.

Federal law, however, caps the size of donations to such groups, a restriction that would have precluded Simmons from donating $2.87 million.

"We urge and expect the Department of Justice to fulfill its commitment to take prompt, vigorous action to enforce against criminal violations of the campaign finance laws," Bauer wrote in his letter.

Separately, Obama's attorneys are demanding that television stations spike the spot. They say the ad is "demonstrably false" and labeled it a "crude, disreputable and malicious attempt to link Sen. Obama to domestic terrorist activities."

Pinkston, the American Issues consultant, scoffed at the charges, saying: "These people need to study election law. It is totally legal. You can be sure we vetted and vetted and vetted it again."

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dan.morain@latimes.com

Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this report.

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