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.
Other campaigns have stumbled in more spectacular ways. In 2007, it was found that Norman Hsu, a prodigious fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, had pleaded no contest to grand theft and was illegally reimbursing donors for campaign checks they wrote to Clinton. Geoffrey Fieger, a flamboyant trial lawyer from Michigan, was indicted on charges that he similarly reimbursed his firm’s employees for donations they made to the 2004 campaign of John Edwards. He was subsequently acquitted, but no one has been eager to use his services since.
After the Norman Hsu debacle, Hillary Clinton’s campaign vowed to conduct background checks on all of its bundlers, as did the John Edwards campaign. But the Obama campaign was more circumspect. U.S. News & World Report said campaign officials promised to be “as diligent as possible in vetting donors and bundlers but will not elaborate.”
In the aftermath of the Cardona brothers scandal, Obama strategist David Axelrod had to admit to MSNBC that “the vet[ting] didn’t go deep enough, obviously. . . . There are going to be holes and when there are, you know, we’re going to act quickly and that’s what we did here.” He also continues to insist that Team Obama “believes deeply in disclosure,” noting that the Obama campaign has released the names of all its bundlers.
But the Cardona incident should remind the media that Team Obama’s commitment to disclosure goes only so far. In 2008, John McCain’s campaign publicly identified its entire donor base, including those contributing under $200, whose names are not legally required to be disclosed. But it was a different story with Team Obama. “We asked both campaigns for more information on small donors,” Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the liberal Center for Responsive Politics, told Newsmax. “The Obama campaign never responded.”
Perhaps the campaign was worried that some of those “holes” Axelrod mentioned this month would turn up. Because of its large number of small donations, the Obama campaign wound up not disclosing the givers of about half of the $800 million it raised in 2008. Indeed, the Washington Post reported that it went so far has to turn off the Address Verification System at its website. That program should have stopped the campaign from accepting contributions from citizens of foreign countries — a violation of federal law. The decision to abandon filters had consequences — the campaign was forced to refund $33,000 to two Palestinian brothers in the Gaza Strip who had bought T-shirts from the campaign’s online stores in small increments.
It was the Federal Election Commission, which did receive a complete list of Obama donors, that flagged the egregious case of the Palestinian brothers. At the time, FEC officials privately conceded that the full list might include many more small donors contributing illegally from foreign countries. The FEC declined to make a federal case out of the smaller fry in the Obama net, but at least one FEC auditor expressed concern about the “sloppiness” of Team Obama’s approach.
The Cardona scandal should serve as a reminder to the media that for all their fixation on campaign-finance issues, they largely gave the 2008 Obama campaign a pass. Now the Cardona red flag from Obama’s 2012 campaign has already been submerged by other news. The media can’t depend on the FEC catching any lapses. It will have to do the job itself.
The FEC usually takes three to four years to finish any probe. If there are irregularities in the 2012 Obama campaign, or that of any other candidate, the full extent of them will be known about the time whoever is elected this year finishes their term. Here’s hoping the media learns from the Cardona case that any campaign can say they believe in “disclosure” and “vetting,” but it doesn’t mean they always practice it.
— John Fund is a columnist and writer based in New York. He is the author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy.