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Gift to Democrats draws criticism

Campaign finance reformers are saying that the disclosure of a $7-million gift to the Democratic National Committee proves their point about the evils of huge, unlimited, soft money contributions, and why it is so important that legislation that passed last week will ban them.

"Those are very dangerous contributions," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. "They are the kind of contributions that can create obligations and dependencies."

Amway Corp. held the prior record for the largest individual contribution _ $1.7-million to the Republican National Committee _ and while it might have been motivated by the strong conservatism of the company's owners, Wertheimer said, Amway affiliates also were the beneficiary of a tax break that House GOP leaders put in the 1997 budget bill.

The $7-million contribution from media mogul Haim Saban will help build a new DNC headquarters.

Todd Gaziano, director of the Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation, took issue with Wertheimer's view of the inherent danger of very large contributions, and said banning them is a mistake.

"They are the most transparent kind of contributions," Gaziano said, noting they are closely examined by the media and the opposition party. Moreover, he said, channeling such large sums through the party instead of secretive private groups works to increase public responsibility. Banning "soft money" to the parties, he said, will shift cash to "sham groups with some kind of nice-sounding name" but that have none of the "reputational" concerns that a national party has.

Patrick Basham of the libertarian Cato Institute said his response to the Saban contribution was, "So what?" Saban, Basham said, appeared to be motivated by legitimate partisan commitments, and "this is just the kind of thing we should be encouraging citizens to do."

Saban apparently agrees. He told the Los Angeles Times, which first reported the contribution, "I don't have anything to hide. I don't have anything to worry about. The most someone can say is, "Look at this guy, he's a staunch Democrat.' I have no agenda outside of I think the Democratic Party is better for America than the Republican Party."