In the closing weeks of the 1996 campaign, the Republican National Committee steered more than $1 million in contributions from its major donors to sympathetic outside groups, collecting the checks and then passing them on to the other organizations, documents obtained by Senate investigators show.
The documents, obtained last week from the campaign of former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, demonstrate that Haley Barbour, chairman of the Republican National Committee at the time, and Jo-Anne Coe, its deputy finance director, tapped big GOP donors to make large contributions to the outside groups. Unlike political parties, such groups don't have to disclose where their money comes from or how they spend it.
The groups included the National Right to Life Committee, a pro-life group that was heavily involved in voter-education projects in the 1996 campaign, and Americans for Tax Reform, which made 4 million phone calls and sent 19 million pieces of mail urging voters to dismiss Democratic warnings about Medicare cuts.
The documents show that Ms. Coe passed on checks for $100,000 each to the Right to Life Committee and Americans for Tax Reform from Carl Lindner of the American Financial Group, a major donor to both parties.
The biggest beneficiary of the GOP program was the American Defense Institute, which runs a voter turnout program for military personnel, who tend to vote heavily in favor of Republican candidates.
The military-oriented group received about $1 million, including $500,000 that Barbour solicited from Philip Morris, the documents show.
Republicans erupted with criticism earlier this year after reports that Democratic National Committee officials and Harold Ickes, then White House deputy chief of staff, directed givers to groups they thought would help boost Democratic turnout in 1996.
Democratic and Republican election law experts said Wednesday that party officials are allowed to solicit and even serve as conduits for contributions to outside groups as long as the groups don't coordinate their activities with the political parties.
But the GOP-generated donations to the outside groups allowed the party's backers to give additional sums that would help the party without having them reported.
Having the donors give directly to the groups also kept the full amount of the GOP's help to the outside organizations from being disclosed.
Internal party documents show that officials there were highly sensitive to donors' concerns about keeping the full extent of their contributions from public view.
"This party has an interest in these organizations being successful," responded Clifford May, Republican National Committee spokesman. "We help them. There's no reason not to. These are independent organizations, and we had no input into how this money was spent."