President Obama’s sudden reversal on super PACs — moving from outright condemnation of the fundraising vehicles, which are separate from any campaign, to dispatching cabinet officers to headline events for super PACs supporting him — threatens to overshadow a more serious issue. This one involves his campaign bundlers — upper-echelon supporters of a candidate, basically fundraisers, who, with official sanction from the campaign, persuade others to write checks, then collect them and package them for delivery.
The issue bears attention. This week Team Obama had to return over $200,000 in campaign funds bundled by two American brothers of Pepe Cardona, a casino mogul in Mexico. Cardona, born in Iowa of Mexican parents, jumped bail in 1994 to avoid drug and fraud charges against him. Ever since, he and his family have been seeking special treatment that would allow him to return to the U.S.
The New York Times reports that as recently as January 2011, the former chairman of the Iowa Democratic party approached outgoing Iowa Democratic governor Chet Culver for a pardon for Cardona on state charges. No pardon was granted.
Small wonder. In 2009, a State Department cable that was made public as part of the WikiLeaks revelations noted that Cardona was suspected of orchestrating the assassination of a business competitor and of making $5 million in illegal campaign donations to Mexican officials in 2006.
But Cardona’s U.S. relatives, especially brothers Alberto and Carlos Cardona, have been unstinting in their efforts to help Pepe. Since they have no prior history of political giving, a natural question arises as to why the two brothers would now become major “bundlers” for Obama. Cynical minds will recall that in 2001, President Bill Clinton issued 140 pardons as well as several commutations on his last day in office, including ones for infamous financier Marc Rich, Clinton’s former Whitewater business associate Susan MacDougal, and his half-brother Roger Clinton, who was accused of using his access to the president to lobby for the pardons of others.
Sarah Westfall, who is married to Gabriel Cardona, one of Pepe’s brothers, says that explaining the civic-mindedness of her brothers-in-law is easy: They were active in the Latino community and enthusiastically supported Obama. She assured the Times that “there were no other reasons beyond those.” As for Pepe, she acknowledged a soft spot about his record: “I understand that it looks real bad. But the rest of the family are really good people. Pepe is actually a good person too.”
One of the (not always true) facts of life is that almost everyone thinks of themselves as a good person, and this view is usually shared by their close friends and relatives. For this reason, presidential campaigns have learned to “verify, then trust” the bona fides of the high-flying bundlers who officially represent their campaigns. Not doing so in the modern political era suggests a sloppiness that can border on recklessness.
In 2004, the campaigns of both President Bush and Democrat John Kerry carefully vetted their bundlers. “We had over 1,000 people who wanted to be bundlers, but many didn’t make the cut,” one top Bush fundraiser told me. “We had to turn down friends of the president just because they had two DUI’s or were having a home foreclosed.”
“It’s incumbent on a campaign to vet their bundlers,” Ed Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, told me. “They have been chosen by the campaign to represent and even speak on behalf of the campaign and it’s important to avoid embarrassment.” Even with scrutiny, mistakes were made. Jack Abramoff, whose lobbying empire collapsed in 2006, was a minor bundler for President Bush’s 2004 campaign, bringing in a little less than $50,000 from his friends and associates.