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Show 'Em Your Money!

There's a purported moment chronicled in the City Hall indictment that, when considered in a larger context, seems more pitiable than scandalous.

It came sometime around December 13, 1995, the day that Ben Reyes allegedly rang up his buddy Dan Morales and asked the attorney general to get on the stick and produce a legal opinion, one that would allow Reyes to vote on the taxpayer-subsidized downtown hotel before he relinquished his seat on City Council a few weeks later. After that phone conversation, according to the first count of the indictment, Reyes described his "intervention" with Morales by boasting to an FBI operative, "That's raw power, man."

Ah, Ben, if you only knew.
To grasp how truly pathetic Reyes's alleged profession of clout was -- and to fully comprehend what a nickel-and-diming guy from the neighborhood he is -- go to the city secretary's office and pull the July 15 campaign finance disclosure report for the Rob Mosbacher for mayor campaign.

You're advised to bring along a handkerchief to mop up your sweat, because the Mosbacher report is a prime piece of political pornography, nearly obscene in its engorgement, with a list of contributors running to 235 pages. It reveals that Mosbacher had raised almost twice as much as the four other name candidates for mayor -- a group that includes two three-term councilwomen, a former police chief, and a former councilman and city controller. By June 30, his campaign already had spent almost $1 million, most of it on consultants, direct mail and television commercials, and had a good start toward eclipsing the $3 million record set by Bob Lanier in 1991, when there were no limits on contributions.

Much of the total $1.3 million Mosbacher raised came from the usual local sources -- Mr. and Mrs. Ned Holmes, Walter Mischer and son, Mr. and Mrs. Ken Lay, Mr. and Mrs. Robert McNair, Mr. and Mrs. Randall Onstead, the James Elkinses Jr. and III, Corbin Robertson, etc. and so on, ad infinitum -- but a not-inconsequential share came from the plusher precincts far outside the 713 and 281 area codes.

From the Dallas area alone, the Mosbacher campaign took in almost as much as the total amassed by one of his opponents, Councilwoman Gracie Saenz. All told, at least 155 individuals contributed the maximum $5,000 to Mosbacher now allowed by city law, with the political action committees of two law firms -- Vinson & Elkins and Baker & Botts -- each kicking in the maximum $10,000 that PACs can give.

Now that's raw power, man.
It's the kind of power that Ben Reyes -- a man of such modest means that he's alleged to have hit up the FBI for $1,000 so he could take a trip to Mexico -- probably never imagined in his most fervid bouts of megalomania.

Admittedly, not just anyone can get the attorney general of Texas on the phone, much less get the attorney general to do his bidding, if that's indeed what Ben Reyes was able to do.

But I doubt Reyes has the direct number of David Rockefeller of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, who contributed $2,500 to Mosbacher, nor, I suspect, has Reyes ever discussed tax breaks with Nicholas F. Brady of the Bullitt House in Easton, Maryland, who gave $1,000. It's unlikely, too, that Reyes has had occasion to muse on the foreign policy failings of the Clinton administration with James A. Baker of Houston and Washington, D.C. ($5,000 to Mosbacher) or with Henry Kissinger of Park Avenue in Manhattan, who, for some reason, could only spare $250 for Mosbacher. And while we know that the former councilman took a keen interest in the operation of at least one municipal golf course, Reyes has probably never had the chance to tee it up with Gerald Ford of Rancho Mirage, California, who sent along $500 to fund the Mosbacher effort.

Like their candidate of choice, all of those contributors surely are honorable men who would never be so gauche as to pass bribes of $1,500 and $2,500 to city councilmen in the men's room of a restaurant, as Reyes is alleged to have done, nor would a hidden camera ever catch them taking a satchel stuffed with $50,000 worth of $50 bills, as the then-councilman is accused of doing two weeks prior to his conversation with Morales.

By managing to get themselves indicted so close to the mayoral election, though, Reyes and the other Hispanic and black politicians made their own contribution of sorts to Mosbacher, providing him with an opportunity to publicly display his own virtue. Former controller George Greanias, who emerged from 14 years of municipal government service with his reputation for integrity intact, refrained from capitalizing on the sorry mess. But barely had the indictment been lodged when Mosbacher trotted out a package of ethics reforms, which he promised would not only give Houston the "most open, honest government in the country" but would, as he told one television station, help elected officials discern right from wrong.

 

Moral instruction from one's betters is always appreciated, of course, and the public servants who aren't accused of taking cash from Ben Reyes in a restroom should be grateful to Mosbacher for his expert direction. After all, he did set forth a few sound initiatives, including requiring the registration of City Hall lobbyists (although man of action Lee Brown was a few weeks ahead of him on that score) and giving the city's flaccid Ethics Committee the power of subpoena.

Yet other than his proposal to require that candidates release a monthly list of their contributors in the six months prior to an election, Mosbacher studiously failed to address campaign financing. The omission wasn't surprising, since Mosbacher made it known shortly after he started running that he wouldn't abide by the voluntary cap of $1.5 million on spending -- one of the campaign finance measures Council enacted a few years ago when the money interests gutted Vince Ryan's more stringent reform measures.

According to Mosbacher spokesman Mark Sanders, such an "arbitrary" limit is unfair and impractical for a candidate trying to mount a "truly effective" campaign.

In other words, Mosbacher doesn't have to limit his expenses, he can raise a lot more than $1.5 million to pay for the television commercials he needs to get into a runoff, and he will.

So there.
"He felt," explains Sanders, "that we need not so much more restrictions on money as we need more reporting on who's actually financing campaigns. It's not the amount of money that's the problem, it's the fact that you don't know who it's coming from. It's just ridiculous right now -- you only have to report basically twice before an election where your money's coming from."

Big-money contributions do influence candidates and officeholders. That assertion seems so clear, so indisputable, such a mundane observation, that it's hardly worth repeating. Yet some people still insist, without even the hint of a crooked smile on a straight face, that all a sizable donation will bring is a warm cup of coffee in the White House or a good night's sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom -- or something so desirable yet apparently unattainable as "good government" for the benefactor.

But not Rob Mosbacher. In 1993, as he was preparing for what turned out to be an aborted run for governor, Mosbacher wrote:

Most politicians don't want to admit that their major contributors have more influence than their small-dollar donors, but they do. If you don't believe it, just look at the top-level appointments made by our state's governors over the last two decades. By and large, the choice political appointments go to the biggest contributors.

This is not to suggest that all recipients of large contributions are inordinately influenced by big givers. Indeed, many contributors ask nothing in return and expect nothing out of the ordinary. However, the temptation is great and the perception of impropriety is very evident.

At the time, Mosbacher was addressing the financing of campaigns on a state level, where, as it was for city of Houston elections until 1992, there is no limit on how much individuals or PACs may give to a candidate. Back then, Mosbacher thought it wise to limit all contributions to $5,000 for statewide races, the maximum an individual is now allowed to give to any one candidate for a city election.

But even in 1993, Mosbacher's assessment of the "corrupting" influence of campaign money was more than faintly ironic, considering that the name "Mosbacher" has been associated with the big-money warpage of government for a quarter-century, dating back to Robert A. Mosbacher Sr.'s contribution to Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President -- the infamous slush-funding, Watergate-connected CREEP that led to the federal campaign finance reforms of the early seventies -- and through the 1988 presidential campaign, when Mosbacher Senior ran Team 100, the operation that provided $25 million in "soft money" to legally circumvent those reforms in the service of George Bush's election.

And now Daddy Mosbucks's touch has been brought to bear on the Houston mayor's race.

Team 100 was actually 249 wealthy corporate executives, investors, oilmen and developers who gave at least $100,000 each to the Republican National Committee and other committees for the Bush effort (on the federal level, an individual's "hard" or direct contribution to a candidate is limited to $1,000 per election). In 1992, Common Cause magazine published an exhaustive study connecting the dots between CREEP and Team 100 and revealing the pattern of favors the Bush administration provided the president's big-money supporters.

 

The magazine found, to cite one example, that big-time CREEP donor Dwayne Andreas of the Illinois-based agribusiness giant Archer-Daniels-Midland ponied up $652,000 to help Bush and GOP committees, then saw ADM profit handsomely from the continuance of ethanol subsidies under the Bush administration. Then there was Heinz Prechter, to cite another example, whose $183,100 in contributions landed him on Team 100, and who subsequently accompanied Bush on that stomach-turning trip to Japan and sealed a lucrative deal with Honda for his American Sunroof Corporation. Prechter, as chairman of Bush's Export Council, also had more than 100 meetings with the president's commerce secretary, Robert A. Mosbacher Sr.

And who should show up on the campaign report for Rob Mosbacher Jr. but none other than Dwayne O. and Inez Andreas of Miami, Florida, who provided $5,000 apiece to influence the election of the mayor of Houston, and Heinz Prechter of Southgate, Michigan, who was good for $2,500 to the younger Mosbacher.

They weren't the only Team 100 donors to bestow their largess on Mosbacher Junior: Also on the candidate's very own Team $5,000 of maximum contributors are Saul Steinberg of East 52nd Street in New York, the eighties corporate raider who's now got his eye on those emerging Chinese markets; Detroit investor Max M. Fisher, who financed the Renaissance Center complex there; Donald L. Bren, the billionaire chairman of the Irvine Company, the largest landowner and developer in Orange County, California; and oilman Chesley Pruet of El Dorado, Arkansas, a former business partner of the elder Mosbacher.

Other Team 100 members weren't quite so generous, but they came through nonetheless: Howard Wilkens Jr. of Wichita, Kansas, who was made U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands under Bush, donated two grand, and Dallas investor Peter O'Donnell and real estate magnate Trammel Crow chipped in lesser amounts.

We can safely surmise that these honorable men don't have much interest in the placement of speed humps in Houston neighborhoods. They obviously just like the Mosbacher family, a lot, and they can't stop giving when the elder Mosbacher calls. According to a 1991 Los Angeles Times story, in his first two and a half years as Bush's commerce secretary, Mosbacher Senior took more than 30 trips, foreign and domestic, on the tab of American corporations and foreign governments. Among his stateside benefactors, the paper reported, were Donald Bren, Max Fisher, Chesley Pruet and Heinz Prechter.

For Mosbacher Senior and those in his rarefied social/political circles, buying elections is just a small part of the cost of doing business, of opening or protecting markets and maintaining corporate welfare. Not that either Mosbacher would personally benefit from the younger's election as mayor, other than satisfying the candidate's ego.

At least you'd think they wouldn't. But in one of the first speeches he gave after becoming a candidate, to the Houston Property Rights Association, Rob Mosbacher rattled off the goals he would pursue as mayor. The very first item he mentioned was his desire to help Houston-based companies supply power to emerging foreign markets -- which, as Mosbacher blithely noted, is the same sort of business that a subsidiary of the family-owned Mosbacher Energy Company has been pursuing for several years.

Perhaps there is nothing unseemly about using a public office to further interests so closely associated with one's own, and of course no one would assume that such an effort would be undertaken in the service of those who had helped underwrite a campaign.

But the temptation is great, and the perception of impropriety is very evident. People give, and some of them expect to receive -- even honorable men with summer homes and prep school educations.

They just don't get theirs in the men's room.


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