Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), President Obama's nominee for… (Saul Loeb, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — As former Sen. Chuck Hagel seeks to fend off critics aiming to derail his confirmation as Defense secretary, he has an incongruous ally: a Pittsburgh philanthropist who made his fortune as one of the world's top horse-race bettors.
Bill Benter, a prolific donor to Democrats and liberal groups who keeps a low public profile, financed an ad campaign by a group of centrist national security veterans who hailed Hagel's "bipartisanship and independence of conscience and mind."
Benter's backing of Hagel, who will appear Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, comes as a small number of extremely rich donors are increasingly engaging in independent efforts to shape national politics. The trend has rapidly accelerated in campaigns since federal court decisions in 2010 opened the door to unfettered political spending by corporations and wealthy individuals.
Now the money wars have moved into a new venue: the debate over Cabinet nominees, who traditionally have not had to endure a rough-and-tumble campaign to get confirmed. Some of the players are financed by deep-pocketed interests whose identities are unknown.
A cluster of opaque groups, some of which recently sprang into existence, have run television ads blasting Hagel as weak on Israel and hostile to gays. His critics include some of the conservative advocacy organizations that fought vigorously against President Obama's reelection, such as the Iowa-based American Future Fund, whose donors remain a mystery.
The anti-Hagel campaign, reminiscent of fierce battles over Supreme Court nominees such as Robert H. Bork in 1987, alarmed longtime colleagues of the former Nebraska senator, a Republican.
"This isn't good for America," said Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado. "It is terribly poisonous. And it just starts a very, very bad precedent."
Hart and other former top government officials who are part of a loosely organized council called the Bipartisan Group wrote a letter defending Hagel, which Benter had published in a half-page ad in the Washington Post. Benter, a backer of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street, also paid to place the bipartisan group's message for a week in Politico's Playbook, an email digest of political news that is a must-read among capital insiders.
The intense fight over Hagel spotlights how wealthy interests are seeking to shape policy even beyond campaigns and traditional lobbying.
"It's a sign of the times and foreshadows what we're going to see a lot more of in regards to appointments and issue fights," said Robert Weissman, president of Public Citizen, which advocates for campaign finance reform. "Obviously, anyone who spends huge amounts of money to advocate for a Cabinet official is going to have a reasonable expectation of special access to that person."
Administration officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the nomination process, dismissed the notion that Hagel would be indebted to Benter, noting that a wide array of prominent foreign policy veterans have endorsed the former senator to lead the Pentagon.
Benter, whose role in the Hagel fight was first reported by Foreign Policy magazine, did not respond to interview requests. Messages left for him were returned by Tony Podesta, a prominent Washington lobbyist, who described Benter as "an active citizen" who was asked by the Bipartisan Group to spread its message.
Podesta would not say how much Benter had spent, but added that the campaign did not include any lobbying. "In the greater scheme of things, it was a pittance," he said.
A math whiz who parlayed his knack for statistics into a computerized system that helped him win untold millions betting on horse races in Hong Kong, Benter has given more than $450,000 to Democrats and liberal political groups in the last decade, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Benter now runs a medical transcription company in Pittsburgh, where he is a regular on the opera scene and gives generously to cultural and educational institutions, according to financial records and published reports.
He keeps a low profile in national politics, but his name surfaced two years ago when the Washington Times reported that a Hong Kong business associate of Benter, named Consolacion Esdicul, had donated more than $800,000 to J Street at Benter's behest. She was the group's biggest donor in the 2008-09 fiscal year.
Associates said they did not think Benter knew Hagel personally or had any business interests in the defense industry. They said he appeared motivated to jump into the controversy after seeing the attacks mounted against Hagel.