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Money talks in Perot's circles

Published Oct. 11, 2005

H. Ross Perot has never held public office, but he is no political outsider. His money has kept him in the innermost circles.

The Texas billionaire, now considering an independent race for the White House, put up cash for at least two administrations to try to rescue hostages and prisoners of war. He helped finance Lt. Col. Oliver North's private foreign policy, once offering $2-million as ransom for hostages in Lebanon.

He bought political power in Texas, too. After he headed a governor's task force to overhaul the Texas schools in the mid-1980s, he hired his own lobbyists to push its recommendations through the Legislature.

They played "pure hardball," he later said. "It wasn't pretty, but we got it done."

To contemplate having a billionaire as a candidate for president _ much less having him in the White House _ boggles the mind.

A billion is one-thousand million dollars. A stack of 1-billion dollar bills would reach 62.5 miles high.

Perot, 61, has three of those stacks. And he can spend down to the last dollar bill to get elected president if he wants to. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it's unconstitutional to limit a candidate's personal spending in a campaign.

"Whether it's in an ethical sense right or wrong, moral sense good or bad, it's legal if you have the doh-re-mi," said Steve Roady, who retired as a political science professor at Florida State University after making a life's work of studying campaign finance.

With Perot's money, Roady said, "You can pre-empt all of the prime television time, all the prime radio time, newspapers, direct mailing, phone banks, bumper stickers, billboards and just saturate people with this. And you can tell your story the way you want to tell it _ a combination of Gandhi, Jesus Christ and Martin Luther King. The other side can't do much.

"It doesn't mean you're going to win, but certainly it's helpful."

So far, the only money Perot appears to have spent on his undeclared campaign is a phone bank in Dallas to take calls from volunteers (800-685-7777).

MCI confirms 1-million calls in 10 days. When Perot appeared on Donahue on Wednesday, 18,000 calls poured in simultaneously. Perot has added 1,200 lines by linking his phone bank to the Home Shopping Network's system.

Ernest Wm. Bach of Largo, who is coordinating volunteers on the Suncoast, said Friday he got 3,000 calls last week on his home phone (813-581-0009). He is planning a Perot rally next month.

Perot is striking a chord with people who see the two-party system virtually paralyzed, said Brian Stonehill, who teaches about political advertising at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

"People are not in a mood to rule him out on class grounds. People are not about to say we can't have a billionaire president," Stonehill said.

"I suspect if he continues to be able to dodge questions about specific policies and talk about the moral authority of coming in as an outsider, he'll do very well."

Perot, who turned his small Dallas computer company into a billion-dollar business, says he understands that dealing with Congress would require compromise and deal-making, not just giving orders CEO-style. It would be a change for him.

"I am tiptoeing into a world where nobody gets things done," he told the Dallas Morning News. "I live in a world of action, not talk."

Perot was always ready for action when a government operative like Ollie North called in the middle of the night to ask for money. Here are some of Perot's known government dealings, based on published reports:

In 1969, Perot very publicly tried to airlift 30 tons of supplies to prisoners of war in Vietnam at Christmas. It didn't work, nor did an offer of $100-million to buy their freedom.

Later, it was revealed that President Nixon had asked Perot to embarrass the Vietnamese. When the POWs were released, some said they had been treated better after that Christmas.

In 1979, two of Perot's computer company employees were taken hostage in Iran. When government efforts failed, he hired his own commandos and directed a rescue operation.

In 1982, Perot joined the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, a group of prominent citizens that reviews activities of U.S. intelligence agencies and is privy to some sensitive data.

Perot resigned unhappily in 1985 and said recently the board did not actually advise the president. But he already had established ties with Oliver North.

In 1982, North asked Perot for money to try to free Army Brig. Gen. James L. Dozier, who was abducted in Rome by Red Brigade terrorists. Perot wired $500,000 to an Italian bank, but it was not used. Dozier later was rescued by Italian police.

In 1985, Perot dispatched an aide with $200,000 in cash for North to try to bribe the captors of William Buckley, the CIA station chief kidnapped in Beirut, and another hostage. The scheme didn't work, but Perot put up another $100,000 a few months later. Again, the hostages were held. The money was lost. Buckley died in captivity.

In 1985, Perot financed Jesse Jackson's unsuccessful trip to Europe to try to win release of the hostages in Lebanon. The trip reportedly cost about $30,000.

In 1986, North asked Perot to place $2-million in a Swiss bank account to try to secure the release of five hostages in Lebanon. Perot was ready with a telex when North called and asked that the money instead be sent by courier to Cyprus. It was to be exchanged for the hostages in a ship-to-ship transfer. The courier waited in Cyprus five days, but the deal fell through.

President Reagan was insisting during these years that the United States never would negotiate with terrorists.

"As I understand the government's policy," Perot told ABC in 1986, "it is they don't want to use U.S. money, but if and when they can find a willing citizen to help him in matters like this, then they can go to great efforts to save the person's life."

Perot says he knew nothing about the Iran-Contra affair _ using money from secret arms sales to Iran to help support the Nicaraguan Contras _ but he is sure that President Reagan knew.

"Hell, they all knew it all the time," Perot said last week.

In North's book Under Fire: An American Story, North says Perot advised him to protect the president when North testified. Perot says that's a lie.

"I ain't that stupid," he said. Perot has a tape recording of a 30-minute telephone conversation with North in 1986 in which Perot said, "I personally believe the smart thing for you to do is dump it all out there and dump it fast."

Perot offered to take care of North's legal fees and family expenses if North told his story. But North took the Fifth Amendment until Congress forced him to testify under immunity.

Perot still has an interest in foreign affairs. For instance, he apparently would have Saddam Hussein assassinated.

"You don't need 500,000 people in the desert," he said last week. "You need the Orkin man. Just handle it surgically."

But he said he didn't know enough about Israeli settlements on the West Bank to express an opinion.

Perot always said he had no interest in public life. Now he says he will spend "whatever it costs" to campaign if he decides to run for president.

Because the other candidates are accepting federal matching funds _ that is, taxpayers' money _ they will be limited to spending about $55-million each. Matching funds were devised in the 1970s so a candidate wouldn't have to have a personal fortune to run for office.

Although Perot's own bank account might never run dry, he vows he would be careful with the taxpayers' money _ cutting Social Security and Medicare to the rich, for example.

Evidence of Perot's frugality does exist.

Texas columnist Molly Ivins says she once wrote that H. Ross Perot made $1-million a week. It was $1-million a day. When Perot saw the mistake, he called her _ collect.

_ Times researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this story.