Senate Probes Web Of Donors Who Secretly Financed Gop Ads

WASHINGTON - Senate investigators have pieced together evidence of a web of nonprofit groups, political consultants and wealthy conservatives who secretly intervened to help dozens of Republicans in last year's elections.

Millions of dollars were spent on television ads, many of them slashing attacks on Democrats. Some of the aid helped Republicans who had run out of campaign funds.

It appears to have been a coordinated campaign to counter a similar onslaught on behalf of Democrats by organized labor. There was a key difference, however: The GOP action was carried out in extreme secrecy, using the anonymity afforded nonprofit organizations.

The law allows such groups to engage in issue advertising so long as they don't advocate election or defeat of a particular candidate. The law also allows them to collect unlimited amounts of money without disclosing who gave it or how it is spent.

Groups involved in last year's GOP network included Americans for Tax Reform, the National Right to Life Committee, Citizens for Reform, Citizens for the Republic Education Fund and the Coalition for Our Children's Future. Evidence suggests the groups were in close touch with each other and the Republican Party.

Democrats on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee have pressed for hearings on the GOP's use of nonprofit groups for political activity. Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who Friday announced he was suspending hearings on fund-raising, said the use of nonprofits is "very troubling. We have no campaign-finance system. We have no limitations when all you have to do is run it through a straw man."

Five people familiar with the Coalition for Our Children's Future, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave a picture of how the nonprofit network operated.

The coalition was formed May 30, 1995, at the behest of Haley Barbour, then chairman of the Republican National Committee.

Barbour's influence is apparent in the documents, as is coordination with people inside the presidential campaign of GOP candidate Bob Dole. At one point, the coalition was preparing briefings for donors. "Haley's approval?" asks a memo.

The documents show the coalition also sought money from the Better America Foundation, a nonprofit Dole organization criticized by some as an undercover way of promoting Dole's candidacy. Dole closed the foundation in June 1995.

After airing almost $4 million in television ads promoting the Balanced Budget Amendment, the coalition fell dormant in early 1996, after Republicans had been battered by the shutdown of the government.

But that summer the group was revived by Robert Odell Jr., a Republican political consultant. He had been approached by Denis Calabrese, a Houston GOP consultant, who brought a client with money to contribute to political causes.

Calabrese's client was the Economic Education Trust, which at about the same time was giving $2.8 million to two other politically active nonprofits, Citizens for Reform and the Citizens for the Republic Education Fund. Senate investigators believe the trust is linked to Koch Industries, a Kansas-based oil company owned by David and Charles Koch. The two men have been generous to conservative and libertarian politicians and causes. A Koch spokesman refused comment.

The trust contributed an estimated $700,000 to the Coalition for Our Children's Future, used to buy issue ads attacking 11 Democrats seeking U.S. and state House seats.

Secrecy was extraordinary. In August, Odell asked coalition director Barry Bennett to sign an oath promising not to reveal the donor's name.