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Foley looms large as past cash source for GOP Reynolds-run efforts got big donations

The House ethics inquiry now under way focuses on a disgraced Florida congressman who nonetheless was a big contributor for the Republican re-election effort directed by Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence.

Over eight years, Rep. Mark A. Foley poured $550,000 into the National Republican Congressional Committee and $194,000 directly to Republican campaigns across the country: $2,000 to former Rep. Jack F. Quinn of Hamburg, for example, and $1,000 to Henry F. Wojtaszek when the Republican chairman in Niagara County ran against Democratic Rep. Louise M. Slaughter in 2002.

Democrats and Republicans in Congress are always pressed to keep raising money for their party's election efforts. Foley had raised and distributed enough to earn a seat for several years on the Ways and Means Committee, a perch that draws cash from myriad sources. He also had been giving to other Republicans at a faster pace as his career advanced.

Foley controlled a stockpile when he resigned. His campaign fund held $2.8 million -- the fourth-highest total among members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, D.C. Reynolds was third, with $2.84 million.

So what might Reynolds have been thinking when Foley flirted early this year with the notion of not seeking re-election, or when Reynolds first heard of the worrisome exchanges between Foley and a former page in the House?

"If I'm the coach of a winning baseball team, and I am about to lose one of my star players for some reason, if there is any way I can prevent that, I might take that step," said Massie Ritsch, a spokesman and researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, which compiled numbers showing Foley's value to the Republican committee.

Then there's the wealthy Palm Beach, Fla., district Foley represented in a state that has been crucial to Republicans this decade. Donors from one Palm Beach ZIP code, just outside Foley's district, have given $116,000 to the committee in the current election cycle. Donors in only three other ZIP codes nationwide have given more.

The GOP was smarting from scandals involving then-Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas, Ohio's Bob Ney and California's Randy "Duke" Cunningham. Losing Foley would have meant investing committee money in a congressional race that had not been in play.

"If you are losing your star player to the injured list, you have got to fill the spot," said Ritsch, continuing the baseball metaphor. "You're going to end up with a weaker player."

Reynolds admitted as much during a news conference when he said incumbents perform better in elections than newcomers -- which is why he implored Foley to seek another term in November.

An aide said Reynolds cannot recall whether that came before or after he learned this spring that Foley sent an overly friendly e-mail to a former page.

Foley and Reynolds were connected by their partisan efforts, and they shared relationships with donors, common among members of Congress. For example, by early 2003, a debt-collection firm headquartered on Long Island, Oxford Management Services, had given Reynolds tens of thousands of dollars to promote Republican values, its principals said. Oxford also wanted one of the lucrative contracts the IRS was likely to sign with private firms to pursue delinquent taxpayers.

Oxford was expanding in Foley's congressional district, and after checking him out with the Reynolds camp, it started giving to Foley as well.

Foley sat on the Ways and Means subcommittee considering whether to let the IRS hire private firms. After his first donation from Oxford, Foley admitted during a hearing that while he was wary of debt collectors -- they hounded him over a $785 charge at Target he swore was not his -- he was willing to open the IRS collection effort to private firms.

Although Oxford Management didn't get the IRS contract it sought, Oxford became Foley's second-largest contributor by 2006 and the source of about $100,000 for Reynolds and Foley, two-thirds of the amount they gave to assorted Republican causes this decade.

"I am very unhappy, I'll tell you. I really am," said Oxford Chairman Richard Pinto, who holds no ill will toward Reynolds but wants his donations to Foley returned. "We contributed to a program. A positive approach to issues. I wouldn't contribute to a lifestyle I didn't agree with."

Republican committee spokesman Carl Forti said that when comparing the money forwarded by some other Republicans in Congress, Foley was not so prominent. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois has given $850,000 this election cycle alone, and Bill Thomas of California, Ways and Means Committee chairman, gave $330,000. By early October, 127 Republican members had, like Foley, given at least $100,000 to the Republican committee this year.

Forti said Reynolds didn't consider Foley's financial value when he later learned of the sexually graphic messages Foley sent to a former page.

"As soon as we learned of those disgusting e-mails, he was the first one to demand his resignation," Forti said of Reynolds.

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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