Fred D. Thompson, who is campaigning for president as an antiabortion Republican, accepted an assignment from a family-planning group to lobby the first Bush White House to ease a controversial abortion restriction, according to a 1991 document and several people familiar with the matter.
A spokesman for the former Tennessee senator denied that Thompson did the lobbying work. But the minutes of a 1991 board meeting of the National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn. say that the group hired Thompson that year.
His task was to urge the administration of President George H. W. Bush to withdraw or relax a rule that barred abortion counseling at clinics that received federal money, according to the records and to people who worked on the matter.
The abortion “gag rule” was then a major political flashpoint. Lobbying against the rule would have placed Thompson at odds with the antiabortion movement that he is now trying to rally behind his expected declaration of a presidential bid.
Thompson spokesman Mark Corallo adamantly denied that Thompson worked for the family planning group. “Fred Thompson did not lobby for this group, period,” he said in an e-mail.
In a telephone interview, he added: “There’s no documents to prove it, there’s no billing records, and Thompson says he has no recollection of it, says it didn’t happen.” In a separate interview, John H. Sununu, the White House official whom the family planning group wanted to contact, said he had no memory of the lobbying and doubted it took place.
But Judith DeSarno, who was president of the family planning association in 1991, said Thompson lobbied for the group for several months.
Minutes from the board’s meeting of Sept. 14, 1991 -- a copy of which DeSarno gave to The Times -- say: “Judy [DeSarno] reported that the association had hired Fred Thompson Esq. as counsel to aid us in discussions with the administration” on the abortion counseling rule.
Former Rep. Michael D. Barnes (D-Md.), a colleague at the lobbying and law firm where Thompson worked, said that DeSarno had asked him to recommend someone for the lobbying work and that he had suggested Thompson. He said it was “absolutely bizarre” for Thompson to deny that he lobbied against the abortion counseling rule.
“I talked to him while he was doing it, and I talked to [DeSarno] about the fact that she was very pleased with the work that he was doing for her organization,” said Barnes. “I have strong, total recollection of that. This is not something I dreamed up or she dreamed up. This is fact.”
DeSarno said that Thompson, after being hired, reported to her that he had held multiple conversations about the abortion rule with Sununu, who was then the White House chief of staff and the president’s point man on the rule.
Thompson kept her updated on his progress in telephone conversations and over meals at Washington restaurants, including dinner at Galileo and lunch at the Monocle, she said. At one of the meals, she recalled, Thompson told her that Sununu had just given him tickets for a VIP tour of the White House for a Thompson son and his wife.
“It would be an odd thing for me to construct that thing out of whole cloth,” DeSarno said. “It happened, and I think it’s quite astonishing they’re denying it.”
Sununu said in a telephone interview: “I don’t recall him ever lobbying me on that at all. I don’t think that ever happened. In fact, I know that never happened.” He added that he had “absolutely no idea” whether Thompson had met with anybody else at the White House, but said it would have been a waste of time, given the president’s opposition to abortion rights.
In response to Sununu’s denial, DeSarno said Thompson “owes NFPRHA a bunch of money” if he never talked to Sununu as he said he had.
At the time, Thompson was a lobbyist and lawyer “of counsel” to the Washington firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn.
DeSarno said the family planning association paid the firm for Thompson’s work. Marc L. Fleischaker, chairman of Arent Fox, declined to comment.
Corallo, the spokesman for Thompson, was asked Friday about the board minutes and the five people who said they recalled Thompson accepting the lobbying assignment. He responded in an e-mail, saying that Thompson “may have been consulted by one of [his] firm’s partners who represented this group in 1991.”
Corallo said it was “not unusual for one lawyer on one side of an issue to be asked to give advice to colleagues for clients who engage in conduct or activities with which they personally disagree.”
Any work that Thompson did to challenge the abortion rule could complicate his appeals to conservatives in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. He reportedly plans to join the race this month.
For weeks, Thompson has tried to pick up support from religious conservatives dissatisfied with the top GOP White House contenders, some of whom have backed abortion rights. In a videotaped message to the National Right to Life Convention in Kansas City last month, Thompson said the group’s issues were “ever more profound to me as the years go by.”
A senator from December 1994 to January 2003, Thompson voted along antiabortion lines, but his statements have occasionally raised questions about his attitude toward the cause.
On Fox News last month, he was asked why he checked a box on a questionnaire in his 1994 Senate campaign beside a statement saying that abortion “should be legal in all circumstances for the first three months.”
“I don’t remember that box,” Thompson replied. “You know, it was a long time ago, and I don’t know if I filled it out or my staff, based on what they thought my position was, filled it out.”
The Tennessean newspaper reported that Thompson, when filling out a 1996 Christian Coalition survey, marked himself as “opposed” to a constitutional amendment protecting “the sanctity of human life.”
The newspaper said he included a handwritten notation saying: “I do not believe abortion should be criminalized. This battle will be won in the hearts and souls of the American people.”
In recent weeks, Thompson has described himself as fundamentally “pro-life,” saying the issue has “meant a little more to me” since seeing the sonogram of his now-3-year-old daughter.
Best known for playing a district attorney on NBC’s “Law and Order,” Thompson worked as a part-time lobbyist over nearly three decades, both before and after his Senate service. His clients included a General Electric aircraft-engine maker, Westinghouse Electric Corp. and the Equitas insurance company.
DeSarno and others said the family planning group hired Thompson shortly after the Supreme Court upheld the “gag rule” in 1991.
That ruling led to a protracted tussle between Bush and Congress. The rule was eliminated in 1993 by President Clinton on his third day in office.
In addition to Barnes and DeSarno, three other people said they recalled Thompson lobbying against the rule on behalf of the family planning association.
Susan Cohen, a member of the association’s board of directors in 1991, said in reference to DeSarno and Thompson: “We were looking, of course, for a Republican who might have some inroads to the White House at that time, and so that’s how she came upon contacting him.”
Said Bill Hamilton, who then directed the Washington office of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, a group that was DeSarno’s main ally in lobbying on the abortion counseling rule: “I definitely recall her reaching out to [Thompson] and engaging him in some way, and trying to squeeze the White House through him.”
Sarah L. Szanton, who worked for DeSarno as director of government relations for the family planning association, agreed that Thompson “consulted on our behalf against the gag rule.”
“I remember that he did it,” Szanton said. “I just knew he was part of the good fight.”
The National Family Planning and Reproductive Health Assn. is a Washington nonprofit organization that represents family planning clinics and other groups. It advocates “reproductive freedom” and broad access to birth control.