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Changing the rules of campaign financing

By law, Hugh Westbrook was allowed to give only $25,000 to federal candidates running for office last year. Being a Methodist minister and upstanding Miami businessman, he stuck to the law.

So how is it that Westbrook could become responsible for more than $400,000 in donations for the election cycle that ended last year?

He reached that lofty level _ which makes him one of the top Democratic patrons in the country _ by "bundling" together dozens of contributions from his friends and by making large, unregulated donations known as "soft money" through his company.

Both practices could be sharply curbed if the campaign finance bill passed by the Senate last week becomes law. The bill is designed to remove the influence political money has, or may seem to have, on policy making _ and remove the sorts of questions Westbrook himself has had to face about his own giving.

Westbrook is chairman of Vitas Healthcare Corp., a for-profit company that is the nation's largest provider of hospice care for the terminally ill. Two beneficiaries of his campaign donations, Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and former California Rep. Leon Panetta, who has since become White House budget director, filed separate bills in Congress that could help Vitas.

Both lawmakers deny Westbrook's donations had anything to do with the bills and both point out that their interest in providing hospice for the terminally ill predates the donations. Indeed, hospice care has plenty of supporters on Capitol Hill, including many Republicans who have not received campaign money from Westbrook.

For his part, Westbrook says his involvement in fund-raising has more to do with his politics than his business. He is now chairman of Graham's money raising operation for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

"I believe in progressive political policy and I believe in the Reagan-Bush years we took some giant steps backward," Westbrook says, "and I intend to put my money where my mouth is."

That he has.

When Westbrook wants to donate to a favored candidate, he taps into a network of several dozen friends, family members and employees of his hospice care company and tells them where the candidate stands on the issues. If they agree to give, each person usually contributes $1,000 _ often raising a quick $20,000 or so that Westbrook can provide to the candidate when he or she arrives for their fund-raising reception. That's how "bundling" works.

Or, if he wants to help the Democratic Party with just a stroke of his own pen, Westbrook can write a large check in "'soft money" _ donations that can legally exceed the federal contribution limits as long as the money goes to generic party activities and not a specific candidate.

Westbrook's company, formerly called Hospice Care Inc., gave $137,250 in unregulated "soft money" to the Democrats for the 1992 campaign. Westbrook, his friends and family gave $94,000 more in other contributions to the party, according to Federal Elections Commission records.

The 48-year-old Westbrook is a relatively new face in big-time fund-raising circles, but he's been interested in politics since his days as a civil rights organizer and worker in Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. He served as the chief money raiser for the 1992 presidential campaign of Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., whose effort was built largely around a national health care plan.

Along the way, Westbrook built Vitas Healthcare into what Jay Mahoney of the National Hospice Organization says is the largest hospice organization in the country. Unlike most hospice groups, Westbrook's Vitas Healthcare is a for-profit company, Mahoney notes.

It relies heavily on the government, receiving 85 percent of its revenues through Medicare or Medicaid, according to Westbrook. He helped persuade Congress to expand Medicare to cover hospice care in the early 1980s.

As the business succeeded, the company and its employees became a source of large donations for Democrats. "As I have had more resources to do things, I have used those resources," Westbrook says.

Now, Westbrook is hoping hospice care for the terminally ill is covered by the plan that emerges from the debate over national health care. He says hospice has won supporters "on its own merits" as a humane way of caring for the dying.

The St. Petersburg Times, in a computer-assisted search of Federal Elections Records, found Westbrook has cultivated several well-positioned allies. They include:

Panetta, who left Congress this year to become President Clinton's budget director.

In 1991 and 1993, Panetta filed legislation requiring state Medicaid plans to cover hospice care, a step that could benefit Westbrook's Vitas Healthcare. In his last campaign, Panetta, a California Democrat, received a benefit of a different sort from Westbrook and his associates in Florida: $15,000 in donations.

Panetta spokesman Barry Toiv points out that the former congressman has had an interest in hospice care for more than a decade.

Graham, whose interest in hospice stems from his father-in-law's lingering death in the 1970s. He says he has known Westbrook even longer.

Graham, after his staff worked closely with a Vitas lobbyist, filed a bill in 1991 to extend hospice care to veterans. His 1992 campaign received $15,750 in campaign money from Westbrook and his associates. And this year, Westbrook agreed to be national finance chairman of the committee Graham is heading to elect Democrats to the Senate.

Carrie Meek, while a state senator from Miami, received some $35,000 for her congressional campaign from Vitas employees or their friends and families last year. The money arrived in the span of one week in February 1992, most of it in $1,000 increments.

Meek won her congressional seat and then was awarded a coveted seat on the House Appropriations Committee.

A few weeks later, Rep. Bob Torricelli, D-N.J., benefited from Westbrook's fund-raising machine. Torricelli received $21,000 from Vitas-related contributors over the last two years, most of it contributed on March 27, 1992. Westbrook says the donations were part of his attempt to recruit members of Miami's generally Republican Cuban-American community into the Democratic Party.

In June 1992, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a leading voice in the health care debate, received $15,000 from Westbrook and his associates. In addition, Kennedy's political committees received another $7,000 from the group the year before.

The campaign committees of House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat and another leader in the health care debate, received $23,000 from Westbrook and his associates in 1991 and 1992.

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