Murray uses clout to get $3 million for political fund-raiser's pet project

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Murray formed M-PAC to make an impact
WASHINGTON — When Patty Murray tucked $3 million for a Seattle museum into a transportation bill, it marked a milestone for the state's senior senator: She now had greater power to fund pet projects as a Senate appropriations "cardinal."

That legislative coup was also a victory for Stanley Barer. A major political donor and maritime-industry executive in Seattle, Barer had worked for years to win federal support for the once financially troubled Odyssey, The Maritime Discovery Center on Pier 66.

The political interests of Barer and Murray likewise intersected when the transportation bill was under construction last fall. Barer gave $25,000 to a Democratic committee chaired by Murray.

Murray and Barer said there is no connection between the donation and the appropriation. No one has alleged impropriety, but Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., singled out the $3 million as "egregious pork-barrel spending" and particularly criticized putting it in the transportation budget.

The money for Odyssey highlights the dual paths Murray is traveling as she rises in rank in the Capitol. And in a week when campaign-finance reform dominated the national agenda, it highlights the role of political contributors such as Barer.

As chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee overseeing highway dollars, Murray has a more direct say than ever over what projects win federal funds.

At the same time, she has become the chief fund-raiser for Democrats in the Senate as chairwoman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC).

In an interview, Murray acknowledged she sometimes is uncomfortable with the competing demands of those two roles. But despite her new responsibilities, Murray says she prides herself on her grass-roots beginnings, likening her fund-raising duties to volunteer work she did at her children's school.

"I don't see this as some kind of power politician," she said. "I see it as doing grass-roots politics to get things done for the people I care about in the same way I used to do bake sales for preschool."

She said she's hopeful the campaign-reform bill advancing in Congress will finally rein in the demand for cash and level the campaign playing field.

Prominent Seattle Democrat

Barer, a former Senate staff member, is a longtime political donor and a benefactor of Odyssey, a private, nonprofit maritime museum. He is chairman emeritus of Saltchuk Resources, a transportation company with holdings that include TOTEM Ocean Resources, a cargo steamship company, and Foss Maritime, a tug-and-barge operation.

Barer, 62, and his wife, Alta, are among the state's most prominent Democrats. He was a federal prosecutor in the 1960s and later served as administrative assistant to Sen. Warren Magnuson. He was invited to the Clinton White House for coffee, and when Clinton came to Seattle in June 1996, he attended a $5,000-per-couple dinner at the Barers' Laurelhurst home.

Spotlight on Odyssey museum

Odyssey, the Maritime Discovery Center, struggled during its early days after opening in 1998. Now it is paying its bills with ticket sales and donations, Executive Director Michael Bittner says.
Officials with the Pier 66 museum say that even without a new $3 million federal grant, the museum is on strong financial ground.
That is possible because of a subsidy from the Port of Seattle. In March 2000, the Port agreed to help Odyssey by taking 30,000 free tickets a year in lieu of $21,000 in monthly payments that would have been due for continuing expenses and for part of the cost of interior construction.
Deputy Port Director Tom Tierney said the agreement covered past-due payments and future payments through July 2003. At that point the museum is expected to begin making the payments again.
The Port also donated the Odyssey building, valued at $2 million. The museum's interior and exhibit construction was paid for with about $10 million raised from private donations, including from Boeing, Safeco and Seafirst.
Of the 45,000 visitors to the museum last year, about half were students, Bittner said. Fewer than 10,000 of the visitors used the free tickets from the port. He said a consultant's report done before the opening of Odyssey projected as many as 300,000 visitors a year, which he said was unrealistic. The business plan calls for a 10 percent increase in attendance above last year's figures, he said.
Odyssey has also received more than $1 million from the state Department of Natural Resources; $325,000 from the City of Seattle; $363,000 from King County; $475,000 from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and $1 million from the Stan and Alta Barer endowment.
"I'm a great believer that political contributions accomplish nothing, except give you an opportunity if you are acquiring some degree of access — and I don't know if that is true — to make your case," Barer said in an interview this week. "If the merits are not good, you're not going to have a chance."

Odyssey is "not a political issue, any more than the Science Center is, or the flight museum or the Seattle Art Museum."

But the proximity of campaign donations and appropriations "raises suspicions of quid pro quos," said Larry Makinson of the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington, D.C. group that tracks campaign finances. "You can say whatever you like, but when you have that close a confluence between a legislative favor and a political contribution, it raises red flags all over the place."

In addition to giving to the Senate committee, Barer also helped Murray extend her new fund-raising role by being an early donor to M-PAC, a political-action committee she formed in March 2001.

Makinson said campaign contributions bring access. But, he said, "they're not supposed to buy you grant money."

From 1998 through the middle of last year, according to Federal Election Commission records, Barer gave $92,000 in unregulated "soft money" contributions to Democratic Party committees and another $60,000 in direct gifts to candidates' campaigns or political committees.

Barer's giving has favored Democrats, but he also has supported such Republicans as Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski and Rep. Don Young.

Alta Barer, who lists her occupation as "homemaker," gave thousands more to Democrats, and the Saltchuk political-action committee gave nearly $100,000 more to Democrats and Republicans during the same period.

Getting money for Odyssey

Since becoming chairman of the Odyssey board two years ago, Barer has worked to secure a federal appropriation for the museum. Congress gave Odyssey $500,000 in 1999 to fund a lecture-and-education series.

The museum worked with Republican Sen. Slade Gorton's staff in 2000 and appeared on the verge of securing funds, but Gorton lost his re-election bid that year.

The Saltchuk PAC gave Gorton $9,000 between January 1999 and October 2000, including a $2,000 contribution in October, when both the election and budget process were heating up. Barer gave another $1,000 to Gorton from his personal account that October.

When Maria Cantwell defeated Gorton, the state lost an influential senator.

But when the Democrats regained control of the Senate in midsession last year, Murray ascended to the chair of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees highway money.

The appropriations subcommittee leaders are known as "cardinals" because of the influence they wield in the upper chamber.

Barer said he worked with the entire Washington congressional delegation to win support for Odyssey. Memos sent to Murray's chief of staff, Rick Desimone, asked for $5 million and outlined Odyssey's interactive exhibits geared for children.

On Oct. 10, Odyssey Executive Director Michael Bittner wrote Desimone to stress a proposed exhibit on the U.S. Coast Guard that tied museum funding to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, claiming it would highlight the importance of the guard.

Despite the many contacts Barer said he had with the delegation, the Odyssey money didn't appear until Murray was in final negotiations with House leaders. The transportation $60 billion conference report was approved Dec. 4 with the $3 million for an "Odyssey Maritime Project."

Murray's office touted the museum funding, along with millions of dollars the senator secured for state bridges and rail projects, as evidence of her growing clout, even as critics attacked the bill.

"Of all the years I have seen this egregious pork-barrel spending, this is one of the worst," McCain complained when the transportation bill appeared for a final vote on the Senate floor. He singled out the Odyssey funding.

"What makes this last one a highlight is that the 'Odyssey Maritime Project' is not a surface transportation project at all. It is, in fact, a museum," McCain said. "But the sponsor of that project must not have wanted us to really know what the funding was being allocated for and instead chose to incorporate some clever penmanship to mask the true nature of the so-called transportation project."

Dinner twice rescheduled

Barer and DSCC officials said the timing of the contribution to the Senate campaign committee was a coincidence.

In an Aug. 8 conference call with Murray, Barer agreed to make the $25,000 donation and co-host a DSCC fund-raising dinner in September, according to Tovah Ravitz-Meehan, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Senate fund-raising committee.

The dinner was canceled following Sept. 11 and rescheduled for December. Invitations were issued in November, and Barer wrote his check Nov. 26.

The event was again rescheduled because of conflicts with the Senate agenda, and finally held Jan 19. In addition to Murray, 50 guests at the Columbia Tower Club enjoyed the company of Sens. Cantwell, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Ron Wyden of Oregon. The night netted $300,000.

Odyssey is in a 20,000-square-foot facility adjacent to the Port of Seattle headquarters on Alaskan Way. The interior exhibits were constructed with money from the port, the city and private donations, including $1 million from Barer and his wife.

Murray and Barer said it was appropriate to fund it through a transportation bill.

"If this region is to maintain its status as a global portal — which it now is — people are going to have to understand how trade and transportation works, why transportation is so important," Barer said.