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Presidential Kids' Charity

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.

Rowe, the mother of three children, also engaged in a thinly disguised affair with John Nau, head of Anheuser-Busch's Silver Eagle Distributors, while Nau was board chairman of the Variety Club chapter. Club sources recounted how Rowe, who was married, hired a private investigator to have the office swept for electronic bugs after Nau's wife found out about the relationship.

After Rowe's departure, the international club's officials backed the anti-Rowe faction. "The cancer has been removed from the local chapter," declared Variety Club international vice president Fred Friedman.

A group of board members loyal to Rowe promptly founded a new organization, Houston Children's Charity, and installed Rowe as director. They sued for the Variety Club chapter's assets, and in a court-mediated settlement took half and went their own way.

Rowe later sued Variety Club officials, the Houston Press and this reporter for defamation after the paper ran a cover article ["Variety Club Follies," July 25, 1996]. The suit alleged that the Press article revealed the extramarital affair "when there was no reason to do so." A year later Rowe dropped the suit without explanation.

By that time Rowe had divorced her husband, John, and settled into the familiar role of staging fund-raisers for the new charity in the old Variety Club show-biz style. Most notable was a gala benefit starring Lyle Lovett last October and the more casual "Havana Heat -- A Hot Night at the Tropicana" last July.

Rowe says a friend in Dallas and her associations with the Bush clan drew her from charity to political fund-raising. "I've known some of the Bush family, not Governor Bush personally. I've never even met him," says Rowe. She quickly amended that to "I've met him one time" and says her main association is with George's brother Neil Bush and his wife, Sharon.

"They've been very supportive in the past," says Rowe. "I'm just a Bush fan, I guess you could say. But I certainly have not tried to do anything to cause any trouble."

Intentionally or not, when it comes to fund-raising, trouble and Laura Rowe frequently seem to travel in tandem.

Several Houston political consultants reacted with gales of laughter when told about Rowe's use of a charity's phone and office as the checkpoint for a presidential fund-raising effort. "Is she felony stupid or what?" asked one. Another, who followed the Variety Club war closely, says, "You'd think she would have learned her lesson by now."

Ian Stirton, a spokesman for the Federal Election Commission in Washington, says the main fallout from Rowe's unorthodox fund-raising will likely be on the charity rather than the Bush campaign.

"In using office facilities, there's a monetary value attached to it, and it's an in-kind contribution to the campaign," explains Stirton. "They may be in trouble with the IRS, because that's their tax status they're playing around with, and they want to be careful about things like that."

The FEC spokesman says the Bush committee could comply with election laws simply by listing a fair market value for what Houston Children's Charity contributed to the effort. The fact that a charity cannot legally make such a contribution is not the campaign's problem.

Bush committee spokeswoman Tucker vows that blunders like Rowe's will not be tolerated.

"She is a volunteer fund-raiser," says Tucker. "She sent out a letter that was not approved by the exploratory committee. The letter goes directly against our instructions, and she has been notified by the committee to discontinue the activity immediately."

Tucker says the estimated cost of using Houston Children's Charity assets either will be directly reimbursed by the Bush committee or Rowe will have to reimburse the charity and then report it as an in-kind contribution to the Bush effort.

Rowe has not been banished from the Bush camp, but Tucker indicates that she'll have to stick to the rules from now on.

"As far as I know she will continue [as a volunteer fund-raiser]," says Tucker, "but we have insisted that all our volunteers follow the letter of the law."

Given Rowe's professed ignorance of campaign and nonprofit statutes, perhaps they should sit her down and make her read the law first.

Contribute your news tips to the Insider. Call them in to him at (713)280-2483, fax them to (713)280-2496, or e-mail him at insider@houstonpress.com.


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