Let's Go To The Videotape (TIME, 10/13/97)
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What do these donors get for their big bucks? Access? Influence?
By Frank Sesno/CNN
WASHINGTON (Oct. 6) -- Roger Tamraz, millionaire oil man, paying visitor to the White House; $300,000 to the Democrats; an invitation to coffee. If there were a poster boy for what went wrong on the money trail, it would be Roger Tamraz.
"If they kick me from the door, I'll come through the window," he told senators this September.
And what makes Tamraz unique is this: he's outspoken and proud of what he did -- no apologies here. (352K wav sound)
"I think there is nothing wrong with access," he says. "I hope we never close access. I don't think the president should live in an ivory tower."
The National Security Council tried to keep him out. His money and his connections got him in.
Said Tamraz, "I just wanted to be remembered, I want to be part of a system. You have to be part of the club."
An exclusive club.
Tamraz wanted White House clearance for a $2-billion pipeline from the Caspian Sea, where he believes there's more oil than in all of Saudi Arabia. Shelling out $300,000 to see the president was just part of the investment.
Tamraz didn't get his pipeline but says the access alone was worth it. No remorse? "None at all," he said. In fact, Tamraz says he stands ready to do it all again.
"I am available," he said. "Those who need me know my number. And some do call."
"So the same senators who grilled you, they would welcome your money?" CNN asked Tamraz.
Tamraz answered, "What's the alternative? What should they do? If it's not Roger Tamraz, it's someone else."
One senator, Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat of Connecticut, says Tamraz "is indeed a metaphor for what is wrong with the system."
In this town, it is all about access. Tamraz had that. In the end, though, he did not succeed in changing policy. But plenty of others -- with connections, clout and cash -- have had more success.
The gambling industry is a case in point. In 1996, donations from gambling interests to both parties skyrocketed, up 800 percent from 1992 to $3.9 million. So much, so fast that the advocacy group Common Cause took a close look.
"In one contribution they'll give $200,000," says Common Cause president Anne McBride. "That's six times the average family income in this country."
Frank Fahrenkopf, former chairman of the Republican Party, is the voice of the gaming industry in Washington. "We're happy to participate in the process," he says.
What brought this industry to the table? Self interest.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton considered funding welfare reform with a four percent tax on gambling.
Says Fahrenkopf, "That seemed to be the point when the major portions of the industry really sat up and took notice."
The industry mobilized and started giving generously to both parties. Donations in '94 more than doubled from two years earlier -- from $500,000 to $1.15 million, according to Common Cause.
Says McBride, "You find the money coming in and the idea of a tax on gambling being withdrawn quietly."
Then in March 1996, another challenge: A bill to study the effects of gambling on American society.
Again the industry went on the offensive to limit the scope of the commission, and later to influence its membership.
"We wanted to make sure that whoever was looking at it was fair, and that it was balanced," Fahrenkopf said.
From May through October, as the campaign intensified, gambling interests pumped more than $3 million into both parties, and hosted fund-raisers attended by Republican Newt Gingrich, Democrat Tom Daschle and President Bill Clinton.
On, June 9, 1996, the commission was created. But ultimately, its subpoena powers were limited -- and it emerged with a friendly face.
Says McBride, "So what you end up with is a gambling commission with little power and with members on it, many of whom are very sympathetic to the industry."
Access equals influence?
Fahrenkopf says, "You don't buy a vote. "What money may buy you in Washington, to be very honest and frank with you, is money may give you a hearing. It may give you the opportunity," he said.
Opportunity. Access. Influence. Results. Cause and effect, or coincidence? It's hard to prove. And that's precisely the problem.
Says Lieberman, "These folks are buying access to both political parties and in doing so are corrupting our system."
Frank Fahrenkopf and Roger Tamraz -- two members of the club, willing to pay to play.
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