Gore campaign chief came aboard with heavy political baggage
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Although Tony Coelho, chairman of Vice President Al Gore's presidential campaign, rarely appears in public these days, there's no question that -- despite political baggage from questionable political and financial dealings -- he's the general in charge of the vice president's presidential election strategy.
"If you've got General Patton working for you, he can take the hill .... he can make mistakes, do some things you wouldn't do, but in the end he can win the battle. I think to a large extent, Tony Coelho is Al Gore's Patton," said former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, who served with Coelho in the House Representatives during the 1980s.
Coelho resigned his California congressional seat in 1989 under a cloud of ethics charges after he failed to disclose a $50,000 loan he received from a Beverly Hills thrift association to help buy $100,000 worth of high-yield junk bonds -- which were being held by a friend of Coelho's who worked at the Southern California savings and loan.
Although he repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, Coelho chose to resign his seat in the face of a lengthy investigation spearheaded by House Republicans, then a minority in Congress
"No one ever proved that Tony did anything wrong. It was at the height of Newt Gingrich's guerilla tactics in the House, the charges were thrown out against Tony," said Democratic political consultant Bob Shrum, referring to the former Georgia congressman's tactics as minority whip during the period before he became House speaker in 1995.
But questions about potential conflicts of interest continued to dog Coelho long after he left the public sector. He has been involved in a wide array of business ventures that critics say blurred the lines between business and government.
Coelho began working for a Wall Street investment firm the same year he left Congress -- and was soon earning millions. A 1998 disclosure form shows his web of businesses relationships with more than 30 enterprises, including board positions on companies in the funeral, casino, lending and horse-racing businesses.
"He's a very intelligent, exceptionally well-organized political operator who always has a number of business interests and he does them simultaneously ... many of the companies had contracts with federal government, contracts they are dependant on," said Charles Lewis, founder of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity.
At least three of those companies have been the subject of government probes, although Coelho himself has never implicated.
"He's been in essence a walking ethical cloud for the last decade, ever since he resigned in disgrace from the House of Representatives," Lewis said.
Expertise transforms Gore campaign
But along with such baggage, Coelho brought badly needed political acumen and management skills to the Gore campaign nearly a year ago, when the vice president himself tapped Coelho to turn around a campaign that was squandering its financial resources while facing a stiff primary challenge from Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey.
In exchange for his services, Coelho demanded total control. He fired a number of top Gore aides and pollsters and oversaw the successful move of campaign headquarters from Washington to Nashville.
"Tony Coelho did in my view a brilliant job of taking the campaign through a budget transition so we're spending a lot less money, and taking the campaign through a transition of personnel and leadership," said Shrum, who was hired by Coelho.
But others wondered why Gore -- himself under increasing scrutiny for questionable fund-raising tactics in the 1996 campaign -- would tap Coelho to run his campaign.
"If I was the vice president and I was worried about my image ... there are two or three people that would be the last people on the planet Earth that I would pick and one of them would be Tony Coelho," Lewis said.
After just five months at the helm of the Gore campaign, a State Department audit questioned his role as an ambassador managing the American participation in the 1998 World Exposition in Portugal.
Charges of mismanagement and questionable spending led to an investigation into whether Coelho used his position for personal gain, charges that Coelho -- and even some of his critics -- have dismissed.
"Those kinds of things do sound kind of minor," Lewis said.
More importantly, Coelho continues to hold Gore's confidence and respect for transforming Gore's disorganized campaign into a well-oiled political machine that rolled over the Bradley camp in contest after contest during the primary season.
"Al Gore knew Tony pretty well, he knew what some of the stories might be. He also knew the trade off was for the kind of skills that very few people other than Tony have," said Panetta.