Contras, Backers Say Offers of Private Help Pouring In
WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Nicaraguan Contras and conservative groups said Friday they have been swamped by offers of money and support since Congress voted to shut off aid to the rebels.
But some fund-raisers and potential contributors said the Iran-Contra affair, which sparked congressional and criminal investigators, has made people wary.
″Because of the uncertainties that have come out of the (congressional) hearings, I think people will want to make certain, and rightly so that they are not violating the law,″ said Bert Hurlbut, a fund-raiser in Austin, Texas.
At the Contras’ Washington office, workers detected no hesitation to give.
″The telephones are going nuts,″ said Eugenio Leal. ″Most people are calling to send money.″ More than 50 people called in a two-hour period, he said. ″We feel very good..″
David Hirschmann of the Council for Inter-American Security said that based on the numbers of calls received, staffers were optimistic about raising money.
The council has joined with other conservative groups in pledging to help the Contras sell ″war bonds″ to finance the fight against the Nicaraguan government
William J. Murray, executive director of Freedom’s Friends in Carrollton, Texas, said the congressional vote ″has just done wonders for us.″
After the House killed President Reagan’s $36 million package of humanitarian and military aid on Wednesday night, the group received a $100,000 pledge from one woman and a $10,000 pledge from a man, Murray said.
Murray’s group sends food, gifts, clothes and paramilitary equipment to the Contras.
John Ramsey, a wealthy oilman from Wichita Falls, Texas, and a big contributor to the Contras in the past, said the congressional vote ″kind of revitalizes me.″
Furious at Congress, Ramsey said he was eyeing ways to ″get the public involved″ in the Contra effort after aid runs out on Feb. 29.
Others, however, said they were gun-shy about leaping into the breach to help the Contras.
″I am staying out of it,″ said Andrew Messing Jr., head of the National Defense Council Foundation. ″The federal government has just intimidated us too much.″
Messing said his group’s past involvement - sending medical supplies and food to the Contras in 1985 and 1986 - prompted the Internal Revenue Service and Lawrence Walsh, the independent counsel in the Iran-Contra case, to investigate him ″out the wazoo ... all because I either supported the Contras or was a friend of Ollie North’s.″
North is a former White House aide for was fired for his role in coordinating private supply efforts for the Contras between 1984-1986 when U.S. aid was banned.
North and his associates secretly diverted to the Contras money from the sale of U.S.-made weapons to Iran. Congressional committees investigated the affair last summer, while Walsh’s criminal probe is still under way.
So far, Walsh has charged only two people, Carl ″Spitz″ Channell and Richard Miller, two fund-raisers for the Contras. They pleaded guilty to conspiring to buy weapons for the Contras through illegal use of a tax-exempt foundation.
Ellen Garwood, an elderly Texas woman who once donated money for a helicopter and was summoned to appear at Congress’ televised hearings, probably will not contribute to the Contras again, according to her granddaughter, who asked that her name not be used.
″Not this time around,″ the granddaughter said.
Contra supporters say they want to make sure that all fund raising is legal and open.
″We will make every effort, everything humanly possible within the law, to raise money″ for the Contras, said retired Army Maj. Gen. John Singlaub, head of the U.S. Council for World Freedom, based in Phoenix, Ariz.
The IRS revoked the council’s tax-exempt status last Nov. 25 because of earlier Contra fund-raising activities.
Contra leader Adolfo Calero said he may try to enlist help from other countries, but Singlaub said that might be difficult after the Iran-Contra affair.
″It certainly will be more difficult after the embarrassment that some of our friends were subjected to during the congressional hearings,″ he said. Countries such as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, South Korea and Israel gave money before.
Reagan is one person who won’t join in the effort to raise money, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
″We will not be involved in private efforts of any kind,″ Fitzwater said Thursday. ″We understand that a lot of people will feel very strongly about helping the Contras personally, and that’s their business.″