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Going Bananas: Chiquita's Slippery Influence

The Busy Back-Door Men

By Michael Weisskopf

(TIME, March 31) -- Virtually no one with a checkbook was turned away from Bill Clinton's fund-raising party--not convicted felons, not Buddhist monks bearing someone else's money, not even a Russian mobster. But few of them felt the need to be quite as discreet as Carl Lindner, the banana king who had a bundle to drop in the last election.

Lindner, the conservative tycoon from Cincinnati, Ohio, who heads Chiquita Brands, gives much more money to Republicans than Democrats. That helps explain why, when he needed a big favor from the Clinton Administration two years ago, he may have wanted to hide his footprints. Lindner wanted U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to help him pry open European markets, which rely on various tariffs and trade barriers effectively to shut out Lindner's bananas. Though hundreds of companies ask Washington to investigate unfair trade practices, the U.S. Trade Representative accepts only about 14 cases each year. Even fewer are taken to Geneva for resolution by the World Trade Organization. And only rarely do such cases make the cut when hardly any U.S. jobs are at stake; Chiquita employs most of its 45,000 workers in Honduras and Guatemala. And yet Kantor took the case.

Lindner

You wouldn't know how grateful Lindner was by checking records at the Federal Election Commission; he gave the Democratic National Committee only $15,000 in the final 15 months of the campaign. Instead, D.N.C. officials instructed Lindner to give directly to state-party coffers, which are subject to far less public scrutiny than federal-election accounts. On April 12, 1996, the day after Kantor asked the WTO to examine Chiquita's grievance, Lindner and his top executives began funneling more than $500,000 to about two dozen states from Florida to California, campaign officials told TIME. The only record of the contributions is in often remote state capitals, like Cheyenne, Wyoming, where contributors are not even required to list their employers. A Democratic official said the state-party route was reserved for "hot potatoes"--donors who wanted some anonymity.

Lindner received the same red-carpet treatment as some of Clinton's more flamboyant benefactors, including coffee with the President and a night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Last week the WTO panel issued a preliminary ruling in Lindner's favor. When that is made final, Lindner stands to gain millions in revenues from new sales in Europe--a good return on the $2 million in soft money that he and his firms have handed both parties since 1990. Republicans too have supported Lindner's banana crusade. (Lindner and Kantor declined to comment.)

While giving to the state parties is perfectly legal, congressional investigators may question the motives of donors: Was it done to camouflage a money-for-favors deal? TIME's survey of state records shows that Lindner wasn't alone. Las Vegas casino owner Steve Wynn, who according to FEC records gave $35,000 to the D.N.C., sprinkled 10 times that amount last fall to seven state Democratic parties, including Georgia and Colorado. Wynn wanted to limit the subpoena power of a new federal gambling commission. Clinton initially favored giving the panel broad investigative authority to study casinos and their books but subsequently reversed his position. Not long afterward, Wynn's cash came through, steered to tightly contested swing states by D.N.C. officials.

--With reporting by Viveca Novak/Washington


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