GOP's Point Man in Donor Probe Knows Big Money

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

If anyone has been set up to be the white knight in the Democratic Party fund-raising debacle, it is Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican better known as a scowling actor in such action films as "Die Hard 2."

An outspoken advocate of campaign reform, Thompson is now cast as chairman of the Senate committee investigating campaign money-grubbing. In true Hollywood fashion, he promised on the Senate floor last month that he would "let the chips fall where they may."

Records show, however, that Thompson--who has perfected the image of a tough-talking Washington outsider--has reaped major benefits from the big-money fund-raising system that he and his fellow senators will be exploring.

Thompson has received backing from one controversial figure who already has proven an embarrassment for the Clinton White House: Farhad Azima, a Kansas City businessman whose companies have had numerous run-ins with regulators from the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Aviation Administration. Over the years, he has also been linked--unfairly and without proof, he says--to shadowy stories about arms smuggling.

Azima attended three coffees with Clinton in the White House Map Room in the last two years. He is among a number of participants whose presence has raised thorny questions about whether the Democrats sacrificed propriety in their quest for funds. Few heavy Democratic donors attended as many coffees as Azima, who is a registered Republican.

Records and interviews also show that Azima is a former law client, business associate, personal friend and political supporter of Thompson, who himself has been touted as a presidential hopeful. Azima staged a fund-raiser for Thompson, who chartered his jet during the 1996 campaign--as did prominent Democrats.

'Nobody's Really Clean'

Such overlap shows that "nobody's really clean" when it comes to political fund-raising, said Larry J. Sabato, a campaign finance expert at the University of Virginia. The number of significant donors nationwide is so small--about 50,000--that both parties are forced to hit up the same people, even those with questionable pasts.

"I wouldn't call it hypocrisy, but it certainly explains how the system works," Sabato said. "It just proves there are no saints in politics and that's not news to most Americans."

To be sure, there is no indication that Thompson's campaign engaged in the kind of fund-raising activity that has prompted the Democratic National Committee to return $1.5 million in illegal or suspect contributions, some of them from foreign sources, and led to allegations of wider abuses involving the Clinton White House.

Tom Daffron, Thompson's Senate chief of staff, said that Azima was one donor among thousands who contributed $5 million to Thompson's 1996 reelection campaign.

"In a perfect world you'd like to do a complete background check on everybody who gives you more than $200 but that's not very practical," Daffron said Wednesday. "You solicit funds and you always hope they're given to you by good, honorable, God-fearing, law-abiding citizens."

Reforming political campaigning has been a frequent theme of Thompson's since he was elected to the Senate in the 1994 Republican tidal wave. Well-known for his tough-guy parts in 17 movies such as "The Hunt for Red October" and "In The Line of Fire," Thompson capitalized on anti-Washington sentiment by driving around his state in a red pickup truck during his campaign.

Yet Thompson had been a Beltway insider for years. As a lobbyist, he represented both domestic and foreign interests, such as the ousted president of Haiti and Toyota Motor Co. Before that, as the lead Republican staff member of the Senate Watergate Committee, he uncovered the secret White House taping system that proved to be President Richard Nixon's downfall.

In his reelection bid last fall, he received more than $1 million from political action committees, including substantial contributions from pharmaceutical, tobacco and chemical interests.

During that campaign, Thompson also received donations totaling about $24,000 from U.S. subsidiaries of British firms. Such contributions are permitted but became controversial late in the 1996 election campaign as attention focused on the Democrats' foreign-linked money.

His 1994 campaign for the last two years of Vice President Al Gore's former Senate seat was bolstered by a $177,000 independent expenditure from the National Rifle Assn., among the largest sums spent on behalf of any candidate by a single interest group in that election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group.

"Everybody who has been successful in politics has come to hold office through the system that now exists," Daffron said. "All the fund-raising we did was legal."

He also noted that Thompson is the only other Republican who supports a campaign finance reform bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) that would ban, among other things, contributions from foreign nationals and political action committees.

But oddly, Thompson now is investigating fund-raising practices that could involve his old friend Azima. Azima's wife, Linda, said of the senator: "We've been friends for years and years."

The bond dates to 1983, when Azima bought a controlling interest in Capitol Airways in Smyrna, Tenn. Thompson was serving on the board and soon became Azima's attorney. The men and their wives--Thompson has since divorced--also met socially.

The social contact between them dwindled when Thompson's acting career took off. Yet as Thompson stepped into the political arena, the Azimas knew him well enough to kid the 6-foot-5 Tennessean about speculation that he would run for president.

"We just said: 'Hey, do you think you might have a chance?' And he'd say: 'It's politics. You never know,' " said Linda Azima.

The Kansas City businessman, his wife and a sister-in-law contributed $3,000 to the Tennessee Republican in 1996, records show. They made their donations at a fund-raising dinner that Azima staged at his Missouri home in January 1996. The event brought in $9,500, said Thompson aides, who added that Azima also leased his jet to the Tennessean's campaign twice.

Daffron characterized Azima's relationship with the senator as "intermittent" and played down Azima's impact on the Senate campaign. "He was not involved in our fund-raising operation in a major way," he said.

Contributor's Corporate Jet

There is no disputing Azima's significance to the Democrats. Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Donald L. Fowler has used Azima's corporate jet 46 times at a cost of more than $200,000 to the party. Azima also gave $95,000 to the Democratic Party and arranged a Kansas City fund-raiser featuring Clinton that netted the Democrats $250,000 shortly before the election.

This continued the pattern of generosity that has made Azima a frequent White House visitor for at least 16 years, according to his lawyer and his wife. He attended several White House fund-raisers during Ronald Reagan's presidency and he appeared there during George Bush's administration as well.

Linda Azima said that her Iranian-born husband's political largess is motivated by an immigrant's gratitude. "You'll find that many people who come from other countries are fascinated by our political system here and really have more faith in it than we do," she said.

Jeffrey S. Fried, Azima's attorney, added that Azima experiences the same kind of "gratification" from giving hefty sums to politicians that he does giving to charities.

Others, however, ascribe less noble motives to Azima and other donors who give to both parties. Sabato said that such individuals are "power prostitutes" who "see no contradiction in sidling up to the most powerful Republicans and Democrats."

Azima makes it a policy that "an agency he deals with in a business matter is not an issue in connection with any of his political contributions," said Fried, adding that his client owns 15 aircraft that he leases out through two companies and several joint ventures.

Justice Dept. Lawsuit

One of Azima's firms is battling a Justice Department lawsuit filed over a disputed million-dollar bill for fuel used to ship medical supplies and other materials for the Pentagon during the Persian Gulf War. The same company, Buffalo Airways of Waco, Texas, was facing an IRS lien in a dispute over $225,000 in payroll taxes until the matter was settled a few weeks ago, said Fried.

In 1984, Azima and other directors were sued by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for breach of fiduciary duty after their small Kansas City bank collapsed because of insider loans and a nationwide broker deposit fraud.

An outside attorney in the case said that Azima and fellow board members made "substantial cash payments" to settle the case, but Fried maintained that his client anted up only $15,000. Azima and the other directors had won in the trial court but the government was appealing.

A year before that, the Federal Aviation Administration suspended flights at Azima's Global International Airways of Kansas City until safety concerns were satisfied. Eventually, Global, which for a time had contracts to ship military equipment to Egypt, went bankrupt.

But Azima is perhaps best known for a much-disputed association with the Iran-Contra scandal of the Reagan administration. One of his jets was allegedly used to smuggle arms to his native country. Fried said that the businessman owned 50 jets at the time and, as an aircraft lessor, had absolutely no knowledge about such a flight, if there was one.

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