A political action group of Vietnam War veterans that has attacked Democratic candidate John F. Kerry over his combat record has begun a new television and direct mail blitz, enriched by $3 million in contributions from two longtime financial supporters of President Bush and the Republican Party.
In filings with the Federal Election Commission last week, officials of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth disclosed two $1-million donations from Harold Simmons, a billionaire chemical and waste industry magnate, and another $1 million from oilman T. Boone Pickens. Both base their corporate empires in the Dallas area.
The mammoth donations are the latest evidence of how Republicans and Democrats are capitalizing on unlimited contributions flowing to 527 political action groups. The Swift boat veterans operation has been one of the most conspicuous examples of the growing use of tax-exempt independent groups by both parties as stalking horses to advance controversial ad campaigns.
Simmons and Pickens have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to GOP candidates and committees.
Pickens had already given the Swift boat group $500,000. And Simmons contributed more than $90,000 to Bush’s two Texas gubernatorial races.
With its treasury swelled by the two Texans, the Swift boat group has launched a new cycle of campaign ads claiming that Kerry “betrayed his fellow veterans” by meeting with “enemy” Vietnamese negotiators in Paris during the Vietnam War.
In the ad, two wives of former prisoners of war rebuke Kerry for his April 1971 antiwar speech to a U.S. Senate committee, which first brought him national fame.
Mary Jane McManus, who is identified as one of the POW wives, says that Kerry gave “aid and comfort to the enemy.” A second woman is identified as Phyllis Galanti, whose husband, Paul, is a former POW who was appointed by the Bush administration to a Veterans Affairs advisory council and who had criticized Kerry in an earlier campaign ad.
During his 1971 speech to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry talked about private meetings he had attended the previous May in Paris with representatives from the U.S.-backed South and communist North Vietnamese governments.
Kerry advocated an immediate pullout during his Senate appearance, but he has since denied any intent to intervene in the peace process, shepherded by the Nixon administration. Kerry attended the meetings while on his honeymoon in France, but it is not clear how he happened to meet with delegation members.
The anti-Kerry ads are running on national cable and in the battleground states of Pennsylvania, Nevada and New Mexico. Sean McCabe, a spokesman for the Swift boat group, described the $1.4-million effort as “the most expensive media buy the group has made to date.”
McCabe said the operation had also begun a nationwide direct mail campaign aimed at 1.2 million voters.
The Swift boat group’s latest burst of activity and funding was dismissed Monday by Kerry aides, who have long complained of collusion between the Bush campaign and the anti-Kerry veterans. Democrats have bridled all summer over the Swift boat group’s questioning of Kerry’s medals and battle accounts. The charges were heavily covered in the media but remain unsubstantiated by military records and key eyewitnesses.
“Given the national laughingstock this discredited group is, you would have thought that the Bush-Rove money men would have invested in something more reliable and useful, like snake oil,” said Kerry campaign spokesman Michael Meehan.
Calls to a Bush campaign spokesman were not returned. Neither of the Texas business executives could be reached for comment. A Simmons spokeswoman said the two men were “business friends.”
With holdings that include chemicals and sugar, Simmons’ net worth is reportedly $1 billion, according to Forbes magazine’s annual survey of financial wealth. Pickens is close behind at $750 million.
Simmons’ Waste Control Specialists firm won permission this year from the Texas Health Department in its efforts to dispose of low-level nuclear waste in West Texas. Environmentalists are fighting the decision.
In 1993, he paid a penalty of $19,800 to the Federal Election Commission for exceeding the $25,000 annual contribution limit in 1988 federal elections by nearly $45,000. The fine was paid after a conciliation agreement with the FEC.
With their support of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, Simmons and Pickens join a growing list of multimillion-dollar donors to the 527 groups in this election. Unlike political parties, 527 groups -- named for a section of the Internal Revenue Service code covering political organizations -- are governed by the tax code and can accept unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions.
“This would be a convenient way for Harold Simmons to score some points for George Bush without being directly connected to the campaign,” said Andrew Wheat, research director for Texans for Public Justice, a nonprofit policy and research group based in Austin.
Republicans at first filed complaints with the FEC alleging that liberal 527 groups were violating the campaign finance reform law.
But after the FEC ruled in May that it would not reign in the 527s this year, Republicans began forming their own groups. Chief among them were the Swift boat group, which has raised more than $8.7 million from wealthy donors in Texas and 65,000 small contributors, and Progress for America Voter Fund, which shares some of the same donors and has raised $30.7 million since June.