Fund-raising group milks vulnerable senior citizens
Seattle Times staff reporters
Many of the top donors were in their 80s and 90s. The donors wrote checks — sometimes hundreds and, in at least one case, totaling more than $100,000 — to groups with official sounding-names such as "Republican Headquarters 2004," "Republican Elections Committee" and the "National Republican Campaign Fund."
But all of those groups, according to the small print on the letters, were simply projects of the College Republicans, who collected all of the checks.
And little of the money went to election efforts.
Of the money spent by the group this year, nearly 90 percent went to direct-mail vendors and postage expenses, according to records filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
Some of the elderly donors, meanwhile, wound up bouncing checks and emptying their bank accounts.
"I don't have any more money," said Cecilia Barbier, a 90-year-old retired church council worker in New York City. "I'm stopping giving to everybody. That was all my savings that they got."
Barbier said she "wised up." But not before she made more than 300 donations totaling nearly $100,000 this year, the group's fund-raising records show.
Now, she said, "I'm really scrounging."
In Van Buren, Ark., Monda Jo Millsap, 68, said she emptied her savings account by writing checks to College Republicans, then got a bank loan of $5,000 and sent that, too, before totaling her donations at more than $59,000.
College Republicans serve as the party's outreach organization on college campuses. The group has been a starting place for many prominent conservatives, including Bush adviser Karl Rove, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed.
Once a part of the Republican National Committee, the group is now independent. It is set to help get out the vote for Tuesday's election.
Officers of the College Republican National Committee did not respond to questions about their fund raising.
"I think the College Republican National Committee is an amazing organization which is getting a lot of young people involved in the political process," said Paul Gourley, the group's treasurer, who signed many of the fund-raising letters.
He referred questions to the group's communications director, Alison Aikele, who declined to comment.
An attorney and adviser to the group defended the fund raising.
"We have tens of thousands of donors, and I wouldn't extrapolate a message about an entire organization by sampling less than a tenth of a percent of the donors," said Craig Engle, a Washington, D.C., attorney and outside adviser to the College Republicans.
"There are tens of thousands of very, very satisfied and happy donors that enjoy a relationship with the College Republicans and their fund-raising process."
But since at least 2001, some leaders of College Republicans have objected to the tone and targeting of the fund raising done by Response Dynamics, the Virginia company that handles the direct-mail campaign.
Response Dynamics officials could not be reached for comment.
"We felt their fund-raising practices were deceptive, to say the least," said George Gunning, former treasurer of the College Republicans.
Gunning said he and two other board members fought to cut ties with Response Dynamics but were blocked by other leaders led by Scott Stewart, the chairman of the College Republicans from 1999 to 2003. As chairman, Stewart was the paid, full-time manager of the organization. Gunning said he was assured that fund-raising tactics would change.
The board debated the fund-raising practices after the family of an elderly Indiana woman with Alzheimer's disease demanded that her donations be returned. The woman's family said it had sent a registered letter asking that she be taken off the mailing list, but the solicitations continued.
Only after a newspaper reported on the story did the College Republicans refund $40,000 to the family, according to Jackie Boyle, one of the woman's nieces.
"I think this is a nationwide scam," Boyle said on hearing of recent complaints. "They're covering the whole country ... they need to be investigated."
Stewart is the director of Bush's Nevada campaign operation, and campaign officials said he would not be available to comment for this story.
The Washington State Attorney General's Office received at least six complaints about the College Republicans fund-raising letters from 2000 to 2002, but has no record of any complaints since then. The complaints cited "fund raising representations" and "senior exploitation." The Attorney General's Office wrote letters to the College Republicans, but a spokeswoman could not determine the outcome of the complaints yesterday.
In response to the Indiana family's complaints, College Republicans worked to be able to keep more of the money raised by Response Dynamics, got more oversight of the content of the letters and had been working to improve "the message of our solicitations and to change the contract further so that our letters target a wider age spectrum," according to a summary of a 2001 College Republicans board retreat.
The group considered ending its affiliation with Response Dynamics and was preparing a financial plan "so that we might terminate the contract in the future," the summary said.
But the young Republicans and the veteran fund-raisers stayed together.
This year, as millions of dollars flowed in, College Republicans falsely claimed in letters that checks were only trickling in and that the group was in a constant budget crisis.
And the elderly continued to be a major source of donations.
There are far more retired people giving to College Republicans than to any other IRS-regulated independent political committee, IRS records indicate.
The Times was able to determine the ages of 49 of the top 50 individual donors to the College Republicans. The median age of the donors is 85, and 14 of them are 90 or older.
"That can't be true"
Donors interviewed this week frequently expressed disbelief when they were told how much they gave to the College Republicans.
"That can't be true," said Francis Lehar, a 91-year-old retired music publisher, when he was told records showed he gave the College Republicans nearly $23,000. "I have donated to dozens of Republican causes. Some of them might be the Republican Party organizations."
From January through September, the Massachusetts man wrote 90 checks to the group, records show.
"It surprises me that it goes to them and not to the other names that they had," he said. "I admire their skill in writing letters."
The letters are computer-generated, personalized form letters, but the recipients often view them as personal correspondence.
"All the kids that were the head of this organization, they would keep saying, 'You've got to keep on or we won't be able to keep up with Kerry.' So they kept on me," said a retired bookkeeper who was one of the group's most generous donors.
She spoke on the condition she not be identified.
She grew concerned when repeated letters came earlier this year asking for donations for a "Republican Headquarters 2004 Membership Card."
The card was merely a block of text inside a dotted line on the back of the letter. The holder was supposed to cut it out and carry it with her.
But the letter was infused with urgency.
"If I do not have your completed RH membership renewal form within the next ten days, your membership will be put on suspension," one letter said.
"President Bush cannot afford your membership and involvement in the Republican Party to be wavering at this crucial time."
The group wanted a donation of $25 to $500 for the card. If the donor declined, he or she was urged to send at least $5 "to cover the cost of having the card printed for you."
"You had to pay something for the membership card," the retired bookkeeper said. "I sent in four different checks to him and every time he said he didn't receive them."
The four checks totaled $1,105.
"He kept saying he was going to cancel me. He was constantly asking for money."
For her and other donors, the mail was part nuisance, part companion. Several spoke of sorting the mail and writing checks almost as their job this campaign year. And many thought their work alone would make the difference in a Bush victory.
"And they kept telling me I've got to do this or we can't win," the retired bookkeeper said. "You see, I was the only one. They said the others had quit. I was the only one they were writing to, I thought."
Where the money goes
The College Republicans had another warning in September 2003, when the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, issued a report on the explosive fund-raising growth by the College Republicans. The report noted that several elderly donors who were contacted did not appear to know to whom they had given money.
Response Dynamics, its affiliates and other companies related to the fund raising get most of the money raised by the College Republicans.
About $9 million of the College Republicans' reported spending this year appeared to go into fund-raising expenses, according to a Times analysis of reports filed with the IRS.
About $313,000, roughly 3 percent, went for travel, convention expenses and "hospitality." About $210,000 went to payroll expenses, helping pay for campus organizers who have been drumming up support for the GOP ticket among young people.
The large amount of money devoted to fund raising, and the small amount for political activities, is unusual among the top ranks of the burgeoning field of so-called 527 independent political groups.
Of the $20 million the anti-Bush group MoveOn.org spent, according to its filings, 93 percent went to media, advertising, marketing and polling.
Of the $13.7 million spent by the anti-John Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, 90 percent went to media, advertising and media consulting.
Who signs the letters
Most of the College Republicans' fund-raising appeals come signed by two young Republicans who, in the letters, are billed as directors and officers of the projects needing money.
"National officers for the College Republicans have to wear a lot of hats," said Gourley, one of the signers, who is a junior at the University of South Dakota.
He would not answer specific questions about the fund raising.
He said he knows his name appears on letters sent from Washington, D.C. Asked if he approves each letter, he said, "We have certain processes set up."
Matthew Kennicott, listed in spending reports as the College Republicans' political director, also signs letters. He could not be reached.
Ryan Call, former co-chairman of the College Republicans, said that when he was there, the group didn't have a lot of involvement in crafting messages for fund-raising letters.
"When you contract stuff out, you cede a lot of control away to the people you are working with," said Call, 28, a law student at the University of Denver.
Officials of Response Dynamics have publicly described their strategy.
"Direct mail fund raising means asking for money and asking for it often," company President Ron Kanfer wrote in a 1991 article on the art of the pitch.
"You must literally force them to send money."
An August fund-raising letter showed that aggressive approach, telling donors there was a Democratic conspiracy to intercept the committee's mail:
"Given what I've learned, you and I must take every precaution necessary.
"Apparently the Democrats don't have any concern about hurting you, your family or America.
"Their sole concern is revenge — vengeance — retribution."
With the approach of Tuesday's election, the letters have become even more breathless.
Last Saturday, a donor received what appears to be a photocopied handwritten note from the director of one committee: "Please understand I have no one else to turn to. This is serious: We will have to close our doors!
"I need your help now!"
While the vast majority of the money raised goes to pay fund-raising expenses, the College Republicans have used some money to expand operations.
The group says it has tripled in size in recent years, with 120,000 members on 1,148 campuses.
Rove, Bush's top political strategist, spoke to College Republican leaders during the GOP Convention, and said the group's organizing was "absolutely vital to the election."
The group goes door-to-door at college dorms and fraternity and sorority houses to register voters and recruit volunteers.
The College Republicans this year got $220,000 from another GOP group, the Republican State Leadership Committee.
They also received large donations from two more-traditional political donors, businessmen John Templeton, who gave $400,000, and Carl Lindner, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, who gave $375,000.
The College Republicans themselves are rarely mentioned in the group's fund-raising letters. There is the occasional letter on College Republican National Committee letterhead that talks about the organizing work on college campuses.
The focus is on the presidential campaign, congressional races and the constant threat of what they portray as likely liberal victories in November.
The letters imply close connections to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Republican leaders and the party organization. The pitches sometimes promise that special messages will be hand-delivered to Bush or others if they are sent back with a donation.
Most donors interviewed said they get up to 50 solicitations in the mail each day. That pile can include four or more from the College Republicans.
"My house looks like a post office, and I'm not exaggerating," said Anne Kravic, a retired school-district employee in Parma, Ohio.
Kravic rubber-bands each day's mail and marks the top of the pile with the date. As the bundles take over the house, she has stopped inviting people over.
"I wouldn't say that a single week passed I didn't send something and sometimes twice a week, depending on how serious the situation was according to them," she said.
Her small monthly pension cannot keep up with the life of a political financier.
"I'm tired of it. I'm quitting. It is too much for me. My bank account has been overdrawn already," she said.
Elliot Baines is an 84-year-old Florida retiree who says he has a hard time just carrying the mail he gets each day now.
"It's almost too much for me to handle," he said.
Baines was surprised to hear he had given more than $63,000 and that it had all gone to College Republicans. He said he was swayed to give, sometimes against his better instincts, by the power of the letters.
"I thought if I paid them off once it would send them away, but it just encourages them to send more," he said. "It is just a rat race in this house to pay off these people and hope that they quit.
"But they don't. They keep sending."
David Postman: 360-943-9882 or email@example.com
Staff researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company