Mon, May 24, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Bush's donors feed from the government's trough

I'LL SCRATCH YOURS With the help of fundraisers known as 'Super Rangers,' the US president rakes in dough while doling out policy and ambassadorships

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

The sun shone on the plush grounds of the Ritz-Carlton Lodge in rolling Georgia countryside. But the resort's four championship golf courses were strangely empty for a pleasant spring weekend.

Instead, 300 of the US' most powerful men and women sat in a windowless conference room to receive the thanks of their hero: US President George W. Bush.

The 300 form part of an elite donor network that has turned Bush's campaign into the most powerful fundraising machine in US history.

They are dubbed Pioneers (for rustling up US$ 100,000) and Rangers (getting US$200,000). But now, it was revealed to the gathering at the "appreciation weekend," a new level of fundraiser was to be created.

Those Rangers able to generate another US$250,000 could become Super Rangers, the cream of the cream of Republican cash cows.

But they had to do it by Aug. 15. It is a tribute to the awesome levels of power and influence in the room that many would expect to pass that test.

But critics question what people who raise US$500,000 for the Republican cause expect in return. The secretive ranks of Pioneers, Rangers and now Super Rangers expose the huge influence of cash on US policy. Many gain positions in government. Their firms win billions of US dollars worth of federal contracts. Legislation is shaped to benefit their industries.

Influence

Since 1998, Bush has raised at least US$296 million in campaign contributions. It is believed up to half of that huge sum has come from just 630 people. Last week Bush's 2004 re-election fund hit a record US$200 million, doubling the total set in 2000, and it is expected to top US$250 million. It gives the Republicans tremendous firepower.

At the center of this torrent of money lie the Pioneers and Rangers. Formed by four family friends in 1998 when Bush was still governor of Texas, they have grown into a nationwide network of influence. With its different levels, the aim is to make top donors compete for influence. "When you do that, the sky is really the limit. They give more and more, but in the end it is all just gravy for the Bush train," said Andrew Wheat, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that monitors the network.

Scandals

Certainly the benefits of donating seem clear. A report by the group revealed that, out of 630 elite donors from 2000 and this year, almost one-quarter were given an appointment from the administration -- including 24 ambassadorships and two cabinet positions. In 2002 more than US$3.5 billion of federal contracts were given to 101 companies that between them boasted 123 Pioneers or Rangers. "We believe this is only the tip of the iceberg, too. This is only the stuff that we have been able to find out about," said Wheat.

Nor is the campaign choosy about where its contributions come from: 146 of the donors have been involved in corporate scandals or helped to run companies that have. Most obvious was Kenneth Lay, former boss of disgraced energy firm Enron. But others have been linked to financial murkiness on Wall Street, pollution problems and even health issues. The network has 78 donors linked to campaign finance scandals.

But the success of the donor network keeps growing. The Super Rangers initiative was only announced last week, yet at least 25 are already believed to exist. However, only one name has become public.

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