The Party Boys

Politics pulls out the hard "soft" cash, Houston-style

Schechter's arrival in the State Department may be followed quickly by that of yet another rich Houston attorney, Lee Godfrey of Susman & Godfrey, in line for the ambassadorship of Brazil. "It's still in the White House," says one State Department official in Washington, noting that the current ambassador to Brazil -- a career diplomat -- will be leaving the country's capital later this month.

Just like Schechter, Godfrey has been a generous friend to the DNC -- to the tune of $221,000. In another all-in-the-family arrangement, spouse Sandra Godfrey has given $48,500 -- $36,000 in soft money DNC donations.

Godfrey has been giving money in a steady stream over the past few years, but his biggest contributions occurred in the summer of 1996, when Clinton was going all out for soft money contributions. On August 14, 1996, Godfrey is credited with a $50,000 donation to the DNC, six weeks after sending the DNC a check for $30,000.

These contributions occurred near two memorable dates in Godfrey's career.
The day before, Godfrey had traveled to Kelly, Wyoming, with 30 other people described in press reports at the time as energy industry executives.

Aides told the press that the gathering was nonpolitical, but they may have failed to mention it to the attendees, several of whom came in wearing their " '92 Clinton Energy Team" buttons from the previous election.

The subject that day: a national energy policy, support for the Department of Energy -- a favorite Republican budget-cutting target -- and a new piece of legislation Clinton had just signed into law, with the majestic Grand Teton mountains towering in the background of the presidential podium.

The royalty reform bill was a popular piece of legislation in some energy circles. It was intended to streamline federal regulations for drilling on federal lands, making it easier to drill public land by softening some of the government's royalty rules -- such as limiting royalty dues to seven years -- while bumping the government's annual take by increasing activity.

Godfrey was just one of several Houston execs in on the meeting. Attorney Steven P. Williams was there. Williams is counsel to Houston energy giant Enron. Enron is run by Ken Lay, who helps cover the political spectrum as the area's largest single contributor in soft money to the Republican National Committee (see related story).

Ten days later, Godfrey would be back, up close and personal with the president of the United States -- this time in the White House.

The president wasn't serving the kind of sumptuous banquet he could expect in Houston. The main course was coffee, and the list of attendees was a party fundraiser's dream team.

Aside from Godfrey, Mithoff -- who would return the favor by hosting the presidential lunch here in early June -- was on the guest list. Schechter was expected to attend, but would beg off at the last minute when a trial date got in the way. (Schechter had already attended an earlier coffee, and was a White House regular, even making it to one of Clinton's Christmas get-togethers.) Mauro, in charge of the president's Texas campaign, was back at the table as the tour director, gathering Democratic IOUs for his run for governor.

The rest of the guest list amounted to a who's who of Texas Democratic contributors.

There was Lucien Flournoy, head of Flournoy Drilling, of Alice, Texas. Flournoy has contributed more than $85,000 to the Democrats since 1994. Personal injury lawyer Frank Branson, from Dallas, who contributed more than $204,000 over the past four years, sent spouse Debbie Dudley Branson. Gary Jacobs of the Laredo National Bank was on hand, weeks after giving $20,000 to the DNC. Stan McIelland, executive vice president of Valero Energy Corp. in San Antonio, had signed over $187,000 to party causes. Fort Worth was represented by Lyndon L. Olson, president and CEO of Travelers Insurance Co., who was good for $82,000, $20,000 of which arrived in DNC coffers seven weeks after his meeting with the president. And finally, there was Bernard Rapaport of the American Income Life Insurance Co. in Waco, who would give more than $230,000 in 89 contributions over four years.

Altogether, this group has given about $1.4 million to Democratic causes since 1994. But ask if their invitation could have been connected in any way to money, and they sound downright hurt by the idea.

Reached by phone, Schechter begged off an interview with the Houston Press, saying he wouldn't be available until August. But earlier, when the Republicans in Congress were in full hue and cry after dozens of videotapes of these coffees suddenly surfaced months after they had been subpoenaed by congressional investigators, Schechter defended the gatherings.

"They [the coffees] are being hypocritically addressed," he said. "Absolutely nothing transpired at those coffees that anyone should be ashamed of.... Those coffees were designed not for major donors but for major supporters."

Clinton was unique in allowing citizens access to the White House to share their ideas, says Schechter. And don't expect any apologies for his generosity to the president. As state finance chair, he was doing "everything I could" to get Clinton re-elected.

Mauro, a distant second in all polls to Governor Bush, blew up when asked earlier this year about his role organizing the trip. "You people are either stupid or misrepresenting the facts," he barked. The trip was aimed at persuading Clinton to spend more for his Texas campaign, not raise more money for the DNC, Mauro said.

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