Giving It Back, Even If It Kills 'Em

While most Democratic Party workers are out holiday shopping, one division is hard at work returning party contributions to donors whose gifts have raised conflict-of-interest questions in the press.

Bob Maudlin is in charge of this section. When I visited him in his office, he was busy writing to the big contributors from Taiwan, Thailand and Nepal.

"It's heartbreaking to return money to these people," Bob said. "It's insulting to mail back political gifts that rightfully belonged to us in the first place."

"Why did you take the money to begin with?"

"At the time, we didn't realize that they were donating to the party only so they could tell their friends that they had White House connections. As soon as we found out that they were using us for that purpose, we were determined to put a stop to it."

"What exactly do you tell fat-cat donators?"

Bob handed me a form letter that accompanied each returned contribution. It read:

"Dear Party Loyalist: I am happy to report that the presidential election campaign ended with a surplus amount of cash, and so we are returning your check. On behalf of the entire party we wish to thank you for your generosity.

"Because of the refund, we will have to cancel your upcoming visits to the Oval Office at the White House and your breakfast with Vice President Gore on the aircraft carrier of your choice. This does not mean, however, that we no longer hold your Uncle Gao, the financier, in esteem. Nor are we canceling our feasibility studies concerning your request for us build a train tunnel beneath Mt. Everest. These are both on the president's list of overseas priorities."

"That's a good letter," I said. "You managed to give him back his money without hurting his feelings."

"People in Asia don't like having their political contributions returned because it can make them lose face."

I commented to Bob, "It must kill you to return money when the Democratic Party needs it."

"It's no fun. When a big spender from Borneo gives to us, he expects at least one night in the Lincoln Bedroom. Here's another example of how we break the bad news to donors:

" 'Dear Doak Tao: We are returning your check for $500,000 because the president wants you to know that he likes and respects you for yourself, not for what you give to the party. Just the other day, Mr. Clinton told me how much he missed playing pool with you in the White House. He said that, even without your donation, his casa is your casa.' "

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