Also posted at my web magazine: The Public Record.
Harold Simmons, the billionaire Dallas investor has grown accustomed to using his vast wealth to influence the outcome of elections.
Simmons has had a close relationship with President George W. Bush and the Bush family for more than a decade. He contributed at least $90,000 to Bush’s Texas gubernatorial campaign, was one of the largest donors to Bush’s presidential campaign in 2000, and donated $100,000 to Bush’s 2004 inauguration.
In 1998, Bush backed a highly controversial plan to construct a radioactive waste dump near the New Mexico border that Simmons’s company, Waste Control Specialists, would operate.
"I basically told George that I was involved in the company as a major investor," Simmons said in an interview with the Dallas Morning News in early 1998. "And wanted him to be aware of it in case the issue ever came up."
The Austin Chronicle reported last December that “Simmons seemingly greased every palm in the statehouse to smooth his radioactive plans, with his company, Waste Control Specialists, giving more than $2 million in political cash since 2001 while spending $2.8 million on 63 lobby contracts, according to Texans for Public Justice.”
Simmons was one of the main financial backers of the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth, the organization that ran a series of damaging television advertisements against John Kerry, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, attacking the senator’s service record during the Vietnam War.
In the 1980s, Simmons, who has been referred to as a “corporate raider,” waged a two-year battle to win control of military contractor Lockheed Martin before the company merged with Martin Marietta Corp. Simmons has built his fortune by orchestrating hostile takeovers. He controls an empire of sugar, manufacturing, metal, chemical, oil, real estate, insurance and other companies.
Now Simmons has reemerged as the main financial backer of American Issues Project, the latest in a long list of political groups Simmons has financed with the intended goal of influencing public perception of Democratic candidates and derailing their political aspirations. The groups have operated under tax-exempt status under section 501(c)4 of the United States tax code giving them free rein to raise unlimited amounts of cash to run negative campaign ads.
Critics believe these swift-boat type groups have abused the tax-exempt code and should be categorized as a political committee under federal election and campaign finance laws, which would limit donations to $42,000 and require the organizations to disclose the identity of their donors.
Up until last week, Democrats have not issued a forceful challenge to the way the swift-boat groups have operated. In the past, Democratic candidates have decided to ignore the attack ads funded by individuals like Simmons so as not to draw more attention to the negative claims contained in the ads—even though many of the allegations are untrue—or provide the groups with additional publicity.
But when the American Issues Project rolled out a stinging television advertisement against Sen. Barack Obama, tying the Democratic presidential nominee to domestic and foreign terrorists, the Obama campaign responded swiftly, urging the Department of Justice to launch a criminal inquiry into the American Issues Project, as well as the organization’s officers and donors, alleging violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act. Ed Failor Jr., a former aide to Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign heads the organization.
Robert Bauer, general counsel for the Obama for America campaign, said in an Aug. 21 letter to John Keeney, the deputy attorney general of the DOJ’s criminal division, that the organization Simmons has funded is attempting to “evade the structures of election law” by advocating the “defeat of the Presidential candidacy of Barack Obama,” which would require the group to operate under the rules of a political action committee.
On Tuesday, Bauer stepped up his call for a DOJ probe, sending a second letter to the Justice Department demanding the agency specifically investigate and prosecute Simmons.