Front-runners for the Democratic presidential nomination have repeatedly criticized President Bush for his administration’s penchant for secrecy, but Bush was more transparent in revealing his biggest fundraisers in 2004 than the White House hopefuls have been this cycle.
Candidates running for president, including those who have spoken out often against the influence of special interests and lobbyists, have revealed less information about their so-called “bundlers” than Bush did during his reelection campaign.
Over the last several years, political opponents often seized on the information to criticize the Bush administration, such as when environmental and labor groups accused the EPA of writing a lenient rule for industrial laundries to benefit Cintas Corp., whose chairman raised more than $200,000 to the Bush-Cheney campaign.
Democratic and Republican presidential candidates seem to want to avoid similar scrutiny this year, or at least slow the spread of information that could lead to future criticism.
“George Bush very admirably disclosed his bundling activity,” said Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist for Public Citizen, a government watchdog group. “It was to his credit but not to his favor. We were able to connect a lot of dots. One in five bundlers received some form of government appointment by the Bush administration.”
Bush has received criticism throughout his tenure for catering to special interests, but as it turns out, he has been more open about his dealing with interest groups than candidates pledging to clean up Washington’s influence industry.
“None of the presidential candidates are as open as George W. Bush and I find that remarkable,” Holman said. “It’s startling, especially since some of these candidates are running on platforms of opposing corruption from special interest money and lobbying. It’s startling that they’re not even as good as Bush in disclosing the special interests footing their campaigns.”
Sen. Barack ObamaBarack ObamaYes, it's war: How the media should fight back against Trump How will history judge Obama’s actions in Syria? Trump to visit African American History Museum MORE (D-Ill.) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) have railed forcefully against the influence of special interests’ money.
Obama this week released information on his bundlers, publishing on his website lists of three categories of supporters: those who have raised between $50,000 and $100,000, those who have raised between $100,000 and $200,000, and those who have raised more than $200,000.
But Obama has not disclosed his donors’ places of residence, employers or occupations, even though he is one of two sponsors of Senate legislation that would require presidential bundlers to make public that information.
“A lot of these people have common names and it takes a lot of working and backtracking to figure out who they are,” said Alexander Cohen, a senior researcher at Public Citizen, who is putting together a large database on presidential campaign bundlers.
Cohen cited Mark Smith, who gave between $50,000 and $100,000 to the Obama campaign.
Because the name is so common, “you’re not going to know who it is,” said Cohen.
Obama has called the Bush administration the most secretive in modern history.
Public Citizen and the Campaign Finance Institute, which both track political fundraising, are working on a report analyzing special interest funding of presidential campaigns. It is not expected to come out until December, and perhaps later because of the daunting amount of work required.
Although watchdog groups say Obama has fallen short of Bush’s level of disclosure, they praise his campaign for providing more information than any other top-tier candidate, Democrat or Republican. They criticize Republicans for being especially lackluster in making available information about their biggest funders.
“Barack Obama has done more than any other candidate in this race to increase transparency and disclosure,” said Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki. “We hope other candidates will join him.”
It’s not certain, however, that Obama publishes the names of all his bundlers. For example, Oprah Winfrey does not appear on his list even though she held a big fundraiser for him earlier this year.
After Obama, watchdog groups credit Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) with providing the most information on her bundlers. But Clinton has only listed fundraisers who have collected more than $100,000 for her campaign. She has given no indication that some bundlers, such as Norman Hsu, who was later found to be a fugitive from justice, have raised more than $800,000. The Clinton campaign said it would refund donations raised by Hsu. The campaign did not comment for this article.
Clinton does not make public the home states or occupations of her bundlers, either.
Edwards has emphasized the corrosive influence of special interest money in Washington. Yet, he has not revealed the individual amounts of money raised by nearly 500 supporters he names as bundlers for his campaign.
Steve Weissman, the associate director of policy at the Campaign Finance Institute, blasted Edwards for not sharing information about his top fundraisers.
“The Edwards campaign has provided virtually no information about his 500 bundlers and how much they’ve raised and are expected to raise,” said Weissman. “Numerous times we have called them. All the other major candidates have responded to our study, except for Edwards, the ‘clean guy.’”
Colleen Murray, a spokeswoman for Edwards, said that he has disclosed more than his rivals by publicizing the names of all supporters raising money for the campaign, not just those collecting more than $50,000 or $100,000.
“This is 100 percent about transparency and electing someone who is open and honest to the presidency, that’s why we, unlike our opponents, release the names of everyone who fundraises for Sen. Edwards,” said Murray. “In the interest of real change, we hope that Sen. Clinton will not only join us in rejecting money from Washington lobbyists, but also in disclosing the names of all of her bundlers.”
Campaign watchdogs say that Republicans are worse than the Democrats when it comes to disclosure. They maintain that Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump names McMaster new national security adviser How does placing sanctions on Russia help America? THE MEMO: Trump's wild first month MORE (R-Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R), and former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.) have not made public lists of bundlers.
McCain and Romney have posted on their websites the names of campaign fundraisers but have not labeled them specifically as bundlers. They have also not made clear how much these individuals raised for the campaigns.
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) has provided lists of bundlers to media organizations upon request.
Weissman called Thompson’s disclosure “abysmal.” He said Thompson has made public the names of supporters on his Tennessee finance committee.
Thompson’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.