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Parties Offer Big Donors Special Access

May 21, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A generous Republican donor was set up for a round of golf with a governor and other major contributors got special access to congressional leaders to discuss legislation, according to documents released Wednesday in lawsuits over the campaign finance law.

Several news organizations, including The Associated Press, had sued to get access to fund-raising letters and hundreds of other documents that a three-judge federal panel relied upon in its May 2 ruling striking down parts of the law and upholding others.

Many of the letters and documents provide a window on how the two political parties treat their major donors.

In a 1996 letter to Republican Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas, then-Entergy Corp. chief executive Edwin Lupberger thanked DeLay for meeting during a dinner for Republican ``Team 100″ donors in Washington.

``As we briefly discussed, there is an issue before Congress of significant importance to our company and industry _ repeal of the Public Utility Holding Act of 1935,″ Lupberger wrote in the May 14, 1996, letter, with a copy to then-Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour. ``While it is a complex issue and one that is not widely discussed, or understood, it nonetheless presents the Republican Party with an excellent opportunity this year to repeal an outdated and ineffective Depression-era law.″

Months later, in September, DeLay went to the floor of the House and urged his colleagues to support legislation that he was introducing to deregulate the utility industry and repeal the act.

DeLay told lawmakers that by opening the industry to competition, ``we will not only implement the economic equivalent of a major tax cut, we will unleash a new era of productivity and creativity in this huge and vital industry to lead America into the new millennium.″

DeLay’s proposal failed, and the energy industry is still trying to repeal the law, which restricts the ability of large electric-holding companies to merge with other businesses. The House recently passed energy legislation that includes DeLay’s proposal; the lawmaker is the majority leader.

Entergy spokeswoman Yolanda Pollard on Wednesday declined to comment, saying she would look into the letter. A DeLay spokesman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.

The letter is one of dozens of documents showing how the Democratic and Republican parties offer special access _ and sometimes promotion _ to big corporate donors. The campaign finance law prohibits corporations from contributing to national party committees, and bars federal officeholders from soliciting money from them.

Letters from the California Democratic Party to its contributors show donors being offered face time at receptions with then-President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Cabinet members and then-House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

California companies that contributed their wares for party receptions at the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago were offered top billing by California Democratic Chairman Art Torres.

``We are asking you to consider donating Seagrams products for the party,″ Torres wrote the liquor company’s government affairs director. ``Not only will it be appreciated by the partygoers, but it will also be an excellent way to highlight Seagrams at the convention. We will prominently display Seagrams signage to emphasize your support _ along with our Gala sponsors United Airlines and Bloomingdale’s.″

In an April 11, 2000 letter, then-RNC Chairman Jim Nicholson told then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge that Republican donor and Outback Steakhouse chief executive Chris Sullivan wanted to play golf with him.

``He asked me to assist him in this request by making the initial contact,″ Nicholson told Ridge. ``I think you would find Chris to be very interesting and would enjoy stimulating conversation during your golf game. He is an active member of Team 100 and shares in our Republican ideas. I will have a member of my staff contact your office to advise us on how you wish to proceed.″

None of the documents indicates whether Sullivan and Ridge played golf.

The RNC and California Democratic Party are among those suing to overturn the soft money ban and other restrictions in the new law, arguing they are unconstitutional.

The court said it was releasing most documents used in its ruling, but would keep some secret, such as the identities of some parties not involved in the lawsuit but subpoenaed for records and testimony.

Besides the AP, news organizations petitioning the court for access to the documents were ABC Inc.; The Baltimore Sun Co.; Daily News LP; Dow Jones & Co.; Los Angeles Times Communications LLC; National Broadcasting Co. Inc.; Newsday Inc.; The New York Times Co.; U.S. News & World Report; and The Washington Post Co.

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