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THESE CAMPAIGN FUNDS ARE A DRAIN ON DEMOCRACY

A raw, rolling scandal seems to be the only way to motivate this country into reforming the laws about influence peddling and other forms of legally sanctioned bribery in all three branches of government.

And so some good may come of the investigations into just how Marc Rich obtained his pardon from President Clinton.

In chasing the facts, we ought not be too squeamish about how we get them. Putting out the grisly truth is going to be the only way of restoring democracy in federal elections, and barring federal judges, including Supreme Court justices, from taking "honoraria" and other goodies associated with speaking appearances.

Just lift the bed covers off some of these new Section 527 campaign funds and it becomes sickeningly obvious that whatever semblance of discipline and accountability once existed on financing presidential and congressional campaigns is gone. Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code requires any political organization raising more than $25,000 to register with the IRS and publicly report, eventually, all donors of more than $200. It's a menacing loophole through the fabric of campaign laws that most people still think regulate election money.

There are now more than 11,000 of these 527s. When all the arithmetic is done, these organizations in their first year will account for about $150 million in election money. The system promises to usher in a kind of Peronista society in this country, not unlike the domination of Argentina by the super-rich and huge national unions under dictator Juan Peron.

After Nixon and Watergate, Congress passed laws that limited individuals to giving $2,000 to any candidate for the House and Senate, or president, and limited gifts from political action committees to candidates to $10,000. Remember these numbers -- $2,000 for folks and $10,000 for PACs.

Now consider the fact that the man who runs Slimfast Inc., S. David Abraham, donated $250,000 last year to the Section 527 operated in behalf of Hillary Rodham Clinton's Senate campaign. This is 125 times the amount of money he would be allowed to give under the post-Watergate campaign finance laws.

The Service Industry Employees Union gave Clinton's 527, New York Senate 2000, another $250,000 -- 25 times the money a federally regulated union PAC would be permitted under under the old codes. The Communications Workers were in for $100,000, the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees $200,000, and the Laborers Union $50,000.

Republican John Ashcroft, the attorney general, set up one of these 527s for his unsuccessful campaign for re-election as senator from Missouri. So did a squad of other Senate candidates. All Senate candidates last year benefited one way or another from this smarmy system.

Clinton gets extra attention because she is the first senator from New York to campaign using this IRS loophole, and because of the notoriety of the $70,000 Denise Rich gave to New York Senate 2000 while she and others twisted arms here and abroad to win a history-making presidential pardon for her ex-husband, Marc.

Some impressive gifts to Clinton's 527 fall into the ideological, kitschy, or cute category. Jane Fonda gave $20,000; Marlo Thomas $25,000; Paul Newman $10,000, and the late Jacqueline Kennedy's old boyfriend, Maurice Templesman, found $10,000 for the campaign.

All these were one-time shots. But Denise Rich gave four separate times, and the Associated Press has reported she gave an additional $30,000 to Clinton through other soft-money conduits.

People are apt to think this serious money is for a serious aim, like the $40,000 that a senior executive of the CIBA pharmaceutical company gave Clinton's 527, or the $200,000 that Los Angeles oil mogul Marvin Davis gave, or the $25,000 that Black Entertainment Television contributed. BET is owned by the man who is pushing for approval of the USAirways-United Air Lines merger. Then there is the $50,000 the trial lawyers association contributed as part of their effort to scuttle tort reform, and $25,000 from defense contractor Lockheed Martin.

These 527s have just mushroomed because they provide a wonderful opportunity for the corruption industry here. To win merit badges from their clients back home, some elbow-pinchers scan the records for 527s and dump money in as a farmer would unload feed for his cattle into a trough.

Can anyone seriously believe Clinton forces actually asked the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians for $11,000? They run the Seven Feathers Hotel and Casino Resort in Canyonville, Ore. Not even her brother-in-law, entertainer Roger Clinton, would be caught dead there.

Besides, that $11,000 is roughly a tenth of what Clinton needs to raise every week of her six-year term to accumulate the equal of the $30 million-plus she spent in her first election.

The story is that there are no rules on campaign finance anymore -- other than a foreigner can't contribute unless he can figure out a way to launder the money through a citizen or some American union, company, foundation or association or club.

Unions, plutocrats and corporations can donate unlimited amounts of money now. The record-keeping by the Federal Election Commission, tracking contributions under the old system, is virtually worthless.

Poorly financed citizen organizations such as Common Cause and the Center for Responsive Politics, as good as they are, can't keep up with the flood of money from the 527s. No newspaper bureau here has the capacity to follow it, and back home editors' and news directors' eyes glaze over when they are offered stories on campaign finance.

Viewers and readers can't follow these yarns and they are bored by them, the bosses say. And they are right. Meanwhile, representative government of the people, by the people and for the people is sliding down the drain.

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