Dissertation Delivers D.C.-Style Drama

Campaign Finance Crowd Spoke Freely to British Academic

Posted August 8, 2003 at 5:47pm

Fuhgeddabout the Sopranos.

The fictional New Jersey mob family might dominate on HBO, but inside the Beltway a small network of powerful operatives in the arcane underworld of campaign finance is delivering its own brand of drama and intrigue.

It’s all in the pages of a doctoral thesis on the Federal Election Commission and its enforcement process — written by British professor Julian Salisbury — that’s steaming up D.C. this summer with lessons about loyalty, honor and payback.

Salisbury submitted his thesis to the FEC when the agency asked for public comment on how to improve its enforcement process. But not everyone quoted expected to see their comments in the public domain.

“Like favorite uncles, Bob Bauer and Jan Baran know the family’s most intimate secrets,” Francis Wilkinson, a journalist who has written about the FEC for Rolling Stone magazine, explained to Salisbury, referring to two well-known election lawyers.

“The fact that the family is charged with dispensing justice to Bob and Jan’s powerful clients, who, in turn, effectively determine the family budget and individual career prospects, helps to keep everyone close,” Wilkinson said.

While painting a vivid portrait of what ails the watchdog agency’s enforcement process, Salisbury’s 300-plus-page dissertation provides an intriguing look at the inner workings of the bureaucracy and the influence of key players in the campaign finance community.

Besides Uncle Bob and Uncle Jan, the cast of characters includes a host of “good government” groupies crusading for reforms, a few frustrated ex-employees, several party committee operatives who’ve learned how to expertly navigate the regulatory maze, and even an unpredictable commissioner who some would argue betrayed his party by going “native.”

“Trevor. He’s the gold standard,” Alex Vogel, chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former general counsel to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told Salisbury.

Vogel — who is currently under consideration by his party to fill a GOP vacancy on the commission — was referring to former GOP Commissioner Trevor Potter, a protégé of Baran’s. Potter was appointed to the FEC in 1991 by his Republican friends but shocked his party when he demonstrated a fierce independent streak.

Continued Vogel: “Trevor gets on the Commission and immediately starts voting against Jan’s clients. People were saying, ‘What?’ Then people were saying, ‘Well, Trevor went native.’ Say what you will about Trevor, he voted against Republican people. Trevor was a fourth vote. It can happen against either side.”

In fact, as Republicans and Democrats both prepare to appoint new commissioners to the FEC — Democratic leaders have announced their intention to appoint labor lawyer Robert Lenhard, and Republicans are said to be considering Vogel — the dissertation provides an illuminating, if not cynical, look at the appointment process.

“It’s not like other agencies because you have … the fox guarding the hen-house,” Don McGahn, general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Salisbury. “You gonna appoint your guys to make sure you are taken care of. The original intent was for it to be a glorified Congressional committee. That’s the way I see it.”

The paper is also filled with anecdotes about retribution some commissioners and other employees have faced when they’ve crossed Members of Congress and other important party officials.

Larry Noble, former FEC general counsel, recalled a case of a female commissioner who was “punished very directly in the reappointment process because of a vote she had taken.”

“There were two terms open. Her six-year reappointment term and because another commissioner had left, there was a two-year term also,” Noble recalled. “She was given the two-year term because of some of her votes.”

A host of former and current FEC commissioners also describe the lessons they’ve learned working for the unique regulatory animal that polices Members of Congress.

Former GOP Commissioner Vernon Thompson found himself in the hot seat after he divulged information about a 1976 enforcement case involving Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), who won election to the Senate that year. According to Salisbury, the “breach of confidentiality” occurred while Thompson was socializing at Washington’s University Club and divulged information to former Defense Secretary Melvin Laird, a Republican, and the story ended up in papers shortly before Election Day.

David Mason, a current GOP commissioner whose term expired in April, explained the delicate balance associated with interpersonal meetings between commissioners and other members of their political parties.

“When I was fairly new here, I went over to talk to the Senate AAs (the chiefs of staff of the Republican Senators) to give them some observations about the commission and after the talk, one of them came up and asked me, what … could have developed into a fairly sensitive enforcement related question,” Mason explained.

The outgoing commissioner said “red flags” went up immediately and fortunately he was able to give “appropriate guidance without causing any ethical problems for me, or for him.”

Salisbury’s tome — which has made quite a splash in the campaign finance community since it first surfaced on the FEC’s Web site — has surprised many of the key players in the campaign finance community who never expected to see their candid comments resurface on American soil.

Salisbury, who spent six months typing up the 70,000 words of interview transcripts he acquired during a trip to Washington shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, said he’s pleased about the attention the thesis has been getting — particularly as some Members of Congress push to abolish the FEC and sitting commissioners examine ways to improve their enforcement procedures.

“The way I approached the research,” Salisbury explained in an interview with Roll Call, “was to become something of a campaign finance enforcement technocrat … and had no difficulty avoiding the more ideological approaches to the subject area, as I didn’t have much of an ax to grind being a Brit.”