Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson said Sunday that a friend with a criminal record for cocaine and marijuana sales would remain a top fundraiser for his campaign while he evaluates the situation.
For months, Thompson has been flying to campaign events around the country in a private jet lent to his campaign by Alabama developer Philip J. Martin, who has known the former Tennessee senator for more than a decade.
“I know Phil is a good man,” Thompson said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “He is my friend. He is going to remain my friend.”
In 1979, Martin pleaded guilty to the sale of 11 pounds of marijuana, the Washington Post reported Sunday. In 1983, the newspaper said, he pleaded no contest to charges of cocaine trafficking and conspiracy stemming from a plan to sell $30,000 worth of the drug.
Thompson, a former federal prosecutor, said he first learned of Martin’s criminal background Saturday. The crimes occurred when Martin was in his 20s and living in Florida, Thompson said.
“I’m not going to throw my friend under the bus for something he did, you know, 25 years ago if he’s OK now,” Thompson said. “On the other hand, I’m running for president. I’ve got, you know, to do the right thing, you know, and problems occur, and I’ll just have to figure it out.”
Thompson noted that Martin had been sentenced to probation, not prison, in both drug cases. “He paid his debt to society and turned himself around and become a good, productive, successful citizen,” Thompson said.
As for the payments for use of Martin’s jet, Thompson said he had complied with all federal rules covering campaign travel.
“Nobody’s made any accusations that he’s done anything illegal with regard to our campaign,” Thompson said.
Martin, 49, could not be reached for comment.
Martin “knows that he should have told me about this, but he thought it was over and done with and forgotten about, I am sure,” Thompson told reporters outside the studio after his “Meet the Press” interview. “But of course nothing is ever over and done with and forgotten about in this business.”
Fox News posted the video of that short conversation with reporters on its website.
Thompson’s campaign paid just over $100,000 directly to Martin for flights on the jet, which is owned by a corporation, Martin International Resorts & Aviation, records show.
Martin is chairman of a four-member campaign finance team known as First-Day Founders, which established Thompson’s fundraising strategy in June, said campaign spokeswoman Karen Hanretty. His job is to recruit people to raise money, she said.
Also in the group is Spencer Abraham, a former Energy secretary and former Republican senator from Michigan.
Martin, who used to live in Tennessee, has been a friend of Thompson since the mid-1990s but never told him of his criminal record, Hanretty said.
“If you had done these things in your past, would you go around telling people about it?” she asked. “I tend to think it’s not something you brag about.”
Hanretty said the Post was wrong in reporting that Martin was co-chairman of Thompson’s campaign.
The campaign has no reason to suspect there is any problem with the money Martin has raised, she said.
Finnegan reported from New York and Roche from Washington. Times staff writer Joe Mathews in Washington contributed to this article.