Corzine Eyes Spending Spree

Posted July 2, 2004 at 5:34pm

So far this election cycle, George Soros may be the “Daddy Warbucks” of the Democratic Party, but Sen. Jon Corzine (N.J.), the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, could give Soros a run for his money — if he gets a thumbs up from the Federal Election Commission.

Corzine, who earned hundreds of millions of dollars as an investment-banking executive at Goldman Sachs, wants to dip into his own fortune to help fund organizations that are engaged in voter-registration activities this cycle.

But before he starts writing any more checks, Corzine wants to ensure that federal laws that prohibit him from raising soft money do not restrict his ability to give soft money.

“Senator Corzine plans to donate his personal funds, in various amounts, some exceeding $25,000, to one or more organizations that engage in voter-registration activity,” attorney Mark Elias explained in a June 17 letter to the FEC general counsel.

The letter asks the FEC for an advisory opinion, the official statement of advice that could protect Corzine from future legal challenges to his proposed activity.

In an interview, Elias said that there “has been a broad assumption across the legal community” that federal officeholders could, from their own wallets, continue to make unlimited donations to either 527 committees or nonprofits engaging in election activities such as voter registration or get-out-the-vote efforts.

“They don’t lose that right by virtue of becoming U.S. Congressmen,” he said Friday, adding, “I’m not sure we needed this advisory opinion.”

Elias declined to specify which 501(c)(4) Corzine wanted to contribute to, but he cited one possible example. “The idea that Jon Corzine can’t give $25,000 to the NAACP Voter Education Fund is preposterous,” he said.

Indeed, campaign finance experts on the opposite side of the political spectrum seemed to agree with Elias.

“It does seem pretty clear-cut,” remarked James Bopp, a Republican who has represented the Christian Coalition and unsuccessfully fought to have the McCain-Feingold law struck down in court.

“Frankly, I don’t even know why they’re asking,” he added. “There are no restrictions on federal officeholders or federal candidates giving their own money to whom they choose.”

Elias stressed that Corzine’s efforts to make large donations to independent groups was not an effort to benefit the DSCC, nor an effort to boost his image within the party.

Instead, he argued, Corzine is merely trying to continue making large-scale donations on all political fronts. As Roll Call reported two years ago, Corzine and his various political committees donated at least $2.8 million to federal and state candidates and party committees in 2001 alone — a pattern he established in the late 1990s when he was chairman of Goldman Sachs Co.

“All Corzine wants to do is the same thing he’s always done,” Elias said.

Prior to his FEC request, Corzine was already a large soft-money donor this election cycle, on both the national and the local levels.

In the spring of 2003 and then again in the spring of 2004, Corzine cut $50,000 checks from his own personal funds to EMILY’s List’s nonfederal account. In addition to that $100,000 for EMILY’s List, Corzine continues to be one of the single largest donors to nonfederal candidates and local party committees in New Jersey — donations that election watchdogs say would qualify as soft money because they don’t fall under federal limits.

Corzine donated $496,600 in 2003 to 16 different county Democratic Party organizations in New Jersey as well as a few political action committees that were designed to influence last fall’s midterm elections in the New Jersey Legislature, according to an analysis of New Jersey’s Election Law Enforcement Commission records.

On the federal level, Corzine faces a strict annual limit of giving $25,000 to the DSCC or one of the other party committees, but on the state level he can give up to $37,000 to the state and county party organizations.

In addition, Corzine can give just a cumulative $95,000 over the two-year election cycle as an individual donor to federal candidates and committees.

Corzine has already come close to this personal cap. By the end of the first quarter of 2004, Corzine had already given $85,000 in federal donations, including $50,000 to the DSCC, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

Not facing such restrictions in his home state, Corzine gave the nearly $500,000 to party committees and another $46,000 to state and local candidates, making him five times as generous to state committees and candidates as he is to federal entities.

While the commission normally can take months to issue an opinion, Corzine is hoping for a speedier resolution so that his money can make a quick impact with the election less than four months away, Elias said.

“I hope the commission moves quickly,” he said.