Fund Raising: How Bush Plays the Game

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As soon as the campaign-finance-reform bill won final passage last week, it became fashionable to dismiss it as too weak to clean up the money game. But if President Bush signs the bill, as he says he will, and if it survives a court challenge, it will put a damper on at least one type of feeding frenzy: soft-money bacchanals like the one last May, when 3,000 gathered at the D.C. Armory for a black-tie gala honoring the new President. In his speech, George W. Bush noted Washington's "many temptations," one of which is its money culture, and said he wanted to change things. But "in politics, old ways die hard."

That night the old ways were very much alive. The gala, which raised almost $24 million, has been criticized as a prime example of Washington's salesman culture. A TIME investigation reveals just how excessive it was: at tables sold for $25,000 apiece were oilmen seeking to lift U.S. embargoes against Iran and Libya; nuclear-plant owners looking for government backing of a burial ground for reactor waste; and coal, refinery and utility executives out to ease pollution standards. In addition to writing the kind of huge soft-money checks that the reform bill would outlaw, energy firms lent about 20 of their officials and lobbyists to a larger fund-raising team organized by the Republican National Committee.

It was not just partisan zeal that sold tickets. Vice President Dick Cheney and his energy task force had been rewriting the industry's rules—and his proposals were unveiled just five days before the dinner. Three G.O.P. fund raisers told TIME that the R.N.C. consciously targeted the energy sector. "Whoever has the hot issue is going to be the most responsive," one money man says. "Energy was the talk of the town." R.N.C. deputy chairman Jack Oliver denies targeting any group, and Cheney's spokesman denies any link between access and contributions.

Bill Clinton had his White House coffees and sleepovers, playing maitre d' to six-figure donors. Bush avoids small, unseemly meetings with big givers. But he, like Clinton, finds ways to make sure important donors get heard.

It is no surprise that a onetime oilman is pro-business. Critics say his reason for refusing to give Congress a list of industry executives who met with Cheney's task force is to hide ties with financial interests—a charge Bush and Cheney dispute.

But in interviews with industry officials, and in lobbying disclosure reports reviewed by TIME, a clear pattern of who gave and who got access has emerged. Nearly 50 energy producers or associations had contact with the White House while Cheney's task force was working. Many had a chance to press their case directly with the Veep or his staff, sources say. Records show that all but a handful gave to or solicited for the R.N.C. around the time of the gala. Among them was Rick Shelby of the American Gas Association, who raised at least $250,000 for the gala at the same time he was getting the task force's blessing for incentives to build 38,000 miles of new pipeline. Nuclear-industry officials gave $150,000 while landing support for a waste-burial site—Bush later chose Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Former Representative Bill Paxon and another lawyer whose firm works for Exxon Mobil raised at least $100,000 apiece as the oil giant was persuading the panel to back a review of trade sanctions.

Though Bush would later brand Iran part of the "axis of evil," the task force proposed factoring in U.S. energy needs when reviewing sanctions against Iran and Libya. In addition to Exxon Mobil, two other oil giants, Conoco and Phillips Petroleum—each a $25,000 gala donor—have long opposed the sanctions, which deprive them of markets. Conoco president Archie Dunham, an old Cheney pal, visited him March 21 to press the case. Big Oil saw the task force's proposal as a victory, though hopes of lifting sanctions were dashed last summer. Congress voted to renew them.

Also underwriting the May gala was a group long shut out of Washington's power equation: the nuclear industry, which hasn't built any new plants since the Three Mile Island disaster. A group of nuclear executives met on March 20 with Karl Rove, Bush's top political adviser; Lawrence Lindsey, Bush's senior economic aide; and task-force director Andrew Lundquist. Cheney's report backed faster relicensing of old nuclear plants and construction of new ones.

Another task-force surprise was a recommendation that the government review its lawsuits against several power companies accused of ignoring legally mandated pollution controls on renovated plants. Six utilities, including gigantic Southern Co. of Atlanta, hired ex-R.N.C. chairman Haley Barbour to lobby for the relaxation of controls. While raising at least $250,000 for the gala, Barbour met with Cheney on May 3 to discuss the matter. Barbour apparently made an impact. The review Cheney called for threw the lawsuits into limbo. And last week EPA assistant administrator Jeffrey Holmstead told an industry trade association that the Administration wants to eliminate the old pollution controls.