Bush puts friends in high places

He accelerates trend of installing big donors in a widening range of government positions.

American presidents have long rewarded big financial backers with plum posts - ambassadorships, seats on commissions, staff positions.

But Mr. Bush, after setting fundraising records in the 2000 election, appears to be accelerating a trend of installing big donors in a wider range of government positions - everything from federal judgeships to agencies like the Peace Corps.

The move is raising questions about some nominees' fitness for their jobs. And it's sparking closer scrutiny of their money-giving histories:

* The average donation given to Mr. Bush by the 310 cabinet and sub-cabinet nominees announced through July 26 was about $8,300. That's roughly double the average of President Clinton's appointees, according to preliminary analysis for a report due out in September by the Presidential Appointee Initiative.

* Some Bush nominees for federal judgeships have given generously to the Republican Party, which is raising questions about their impartiality. Now, Democrats in the Senate Judiciary Committee want to ask nominees about their donation history.

* An unusually high number of Bush's ambassador picks - about half - are "political appointees," many of them big donors, according to one analysis. Traditionally presidents use only about 30 percent of these foreign posts to reward top supporters.

All in all, "The tremendous fundraising pressure and the rise in soft money have created more opportunity for money to matter in the presidential appointments process," says Paul Light of the Presidential Appointee Initiative at The Brookings Institution.

Overall, the Bush campaign raised $101 million from individual donors during the 1999-2000 election season - including, his supporters point out, $20.2 million in contributions of $200 or less.

Indeed, in one sense, it's not surprising that many appointees were also campaign givers: Republicans at all levels rallied so effectively behind Bush and his party that, now, almost all of Bush's potential nominees have big donation records.

And it's not just Republicans who are relying on party stalwarts for funds. The preliminary Brookings data shows that about half the appointees of both Presidents Clinton and Bush gave money. The difference with Bush's nominees is simply that they gave twice as much -on average about $8,300.

But critics worry about the seeming linkage of gifts to job offers.

"It gives the appearance that generous campaign contributions are a requirement for some of these important posts," says Steve Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics.

The White House insists that people aren't picked because of big donations. "The president's nominees are chosen based on their knowledge and expertise - and their ability to implement the president's agenda," says Anne Womack, a White House spokeswoman.

One controversial nominee is Gaddi Vasquez, who Bush tapped last week to head the Peace Corps. He gave $106,216 to the Republican party in 1999 and 2000, most of it from a campaign war chest left over from his days on the Orange County (California) Board of Supervisors.

Mr. Vasquez resigned from that board in 1995 after the county posted $2.1 billion in investment losses. A 1996 Securities and Exchange Commission probe concluded the supervisors, including Vasquez, "failed to disclose certain material information about Orange County's financial condition...."

Calls to Vasquez's office were not returned. But Stuart Mollrich, a political consultant who worked with him, says of the Orange County episode, "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time." Vasquez, he says, "is a terrific guy - a very good public speaker and motivator." Vasquez has worked with Latino leadership groups and serves on advisory boards of Habitat for Humanity and the Salvation Army.

But some Peace Corps veterans doubt his ability to lead the agency. "It's part of the beast" of politics today, says John Coyne, editor of Peace Corps Writers, a website that publishes volunteers' work. "You give money and you get a position, but you'd at least expect him to have some affinity or connection with the Peace Corps."

Bush's judicial nominees are facing greater scrutiny. The Senate Judiciary Committee is divided over whether to ask specific questions about nominees' donations.

This comes along with the fact that numerous Bush picks are substantial donors. The Ninth Circuit Court nominee, Richard Clifton, has given just under $20,000 to Republicans since 1990. Deborah Cook, who's slated for the Sixth Circuit, has donated more than $7,000 since 1998 to Republicans.

Bush's ambassadors are a donor-heavy group, too. On Friday he announced the appointment of Melvin Sembler - a Florida real estate developer - as ambassador to Italy. Bush's picks for Ireland, Great Britain, France, and others, are big donors, too.

It's a tradition that goes back at least to President Franklin Roosevelt appointing Joseph Kennedy as ambassador to Great Britain. But it appears to be escalating under Bush. A Financial Times analysis from July 13 found that 46 percent of the ambassadors were political appointments, not career foreign-service officers. The average could, however, fall to more traditional levels as more are appointed.

Overall, "There are many people out there with great qualifications," says Mr. Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics. But what distinguishes Mr. Bush's nominees, he says, "is their giving."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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