By Aaron Reiss
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Governor George W. Bush may be the offspring of a former president, but that doesn't qualify him to raise money for his own presidential bid out of the office of a nonprofit kids' charity in Houston. A Bush solicitation letter sent out last week by controversial fund-raiser Laura S. Rowe would have him doing exactly that.
Rowe, who signed the letter as state co-chair of the Bush Exploratory Committee Inc., urges readers to join her in supporting Bush.
In her letter, Rowe waxes enthusiastically for her man. "One consistent, important thread woven into the fabric of the history of our country is the strength of our leaders. George Bush is certainly no exception. The level of integrity with which he performs his duties on our behalf is unprecedented in the political arena and greatly needed in the White House."
Rowe then pitches for a minimum $1,000 contribution and advises that a hubbie and wife can give $2,000. She concludes by listing the phone number where those who are interested should contact her. "Your immediate response will be greatly appreciated by the governor and myself."
Touched by the eloquence and urgency of the appeal, the Insider hustled to the phone and dialed the number, which was answered by a pleasant-voiced secretary named Cathy.
"Houston Children's Charity," she chirped. Asked how one could contribute to Bush's presidential ambitions, the helpful secretary took our name, phone number and address, and promised to mail Bush fund-raising information to the Press office.
In a later interview, Rowe claimed she used the charity's number in the letter "because I'm there most of the day, so it's the easiest place to reach me."
As for the use of a paid secretary from the nonprofit, she claims Bush committee officials told her she is allowed to use one of her employees an hour a week in the effort.
"The people who are helping me raise the money are all doing it from their homes," explains Rowe, who called from her west Houston home. She said the charity's secretary "takes very few calls and has not even done an hour a week so far."
Rowe seemed blissfully unaware that federal tax law prohibits charitable nonprofits from engaging in partisan political activities and that use of a charity's assets in a political campaign could endanger its tax-exempt status. After agreeing that the office, the phone and the secretary used in soliciting contributions were funded by the children's charity, Rowe grudgingly admitted that it just might constitute improper use of the nonprofit's assets.
"Well, when you put it that way, possibly it is," says Rowe. "Maybe in future letters I should not put that number. I just hadn't thought about it that way."
She paused and then plaintively asked, "Where are you going with this?" Rowe did have a healthy curiosity as to who had tipped off the Insider to her fund-raising escapade.
"I didn't send you a letter," Rowe said, puzzled. "Who sent you a letter?"
Told that mail blitzes are rather hard to keep secret, Rowe backtracked.
"I mean, not that I wanted this to be secret. Heavens no, I'm very proud to be raising money for George Bush."
That's more than you can say for the Bush Exploratory Committee, since Rowe's actions add up to the first embarrassment for the burgeoning Bush presidential machine. The committee has enrolled a small army of volunteer fund-raisers around the country called "Bush Pioneers," of which Rowe is only a foot soldier, despite her use of the deceptive title "state co-chair." It technically applies to over 500 volunteer fund-raisers.
Bush Exploratory Committee spokeswoman Mindy Tucker was quick to disassociate the group from Rowe's actions.
"We send extensive information to all of our volunteer fund-raisers regarding the rules and regulations of federal campaign fund-raising," emphasizes the spokeswoman. "This information includes the directive that no material should be sent out without the committee's approval and that no office phones, fax machines, or other equipment or resources should be used for fund-raising activities."
Tucker adds that she knows little about Rowe's background, other than that she was recruited by another volunteer fund-raiser in Dallas, Dennis Berman. Had the committee checked on Rowe's recent history, members might not have been surprised to find that her fund-raising style is hardly by the book.
The 48-year-old Rowe, the Louisiana-born daughter of a soybean farmer, is no stranger to controversy. Three years ago she resigned under pressure from the staff of the local chapter of the Houston Variety Club, another children's charity. The group's board had split into warring factions over her conduct as director and fund-raiser.
Under Rowe, the charity staged splashy fund-raisers featuring such big-name stars as Frank Sinatra and Liza Minnelli. But the Houston Better Business Bureau criticized it for spending too much money on its lavish fund-raising events and too little on actual charity. Some board members said Rowe tried to justify expensive meal reimbursements by saying they were with her at lunch, when Rowe in fact had been treating her friends and herself to the high life. She dismissed the accusations as simple mistakes caused by faulty record-keeping.