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Corporate contributions tarnish the best of them

It's hard to be virtuous when you can't stay away from the bordello. That's the problem Democrats have in trying to seize the political high ground on the influence of corporate money on American politics. They have been almost as compromised by corporate dollars as the Republicans. The main difference is that Republicans enter the corporate money bordellos through the front door, while the Democrats sneak in and out of the back door.

Democrats think they smell an issue in the stench arising from the accounting fraud and corporate thievery that has shaken Wall Street in recent months, jeopardizing the retirement plans of millions of Americans who got caught up in the "irrational exuberance" of the '90s. At a gathering in Fort Lauderdale recently, Florida Democrats were in full populist cry as they tried to tar the Bush brothers with the corporate scandals.

"I'm angry _ angry at the Republican Party that turns its head while thugs in thousand-dollar suits steal billions of dollars," roared Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth.

A lot of people are angry, and beyond the corporate thieves who ripped them off, they're not sure whom to blame. But they are beginning to close the circle and see the connection between corporate corruption and a political system fueled by corporate money. Republicans still offer corporate donors more return on their money, but both parties have some explaining to do.

In recent weeks both congressional Democrats and Republicans have been returning campaign contributions from Enron, WorldCom and other disgraced corporations. Suddenly, this money is dirty. In the 1990s, however, candidates in both parties couldn't get enough of it _ soft money or hard.

Earlier this year, in the wake of the Enron scandal, Congress passed and President Bush signed the McCain-Feingold bill banning soft-money in federal elections. Democrats claimed most of the credit, noting that 95 percent of their party's congressional members voted for the legislation. But it's clear that neither party is ready to break its addiction to corporate money.

For example, the Federal Election Commission, evenly split between Democratic and Republican appointees, overrode the recommendations of its own staff in an effort to gut the McCain-Feingold law by opening up loopholes large enough for a Brinks armored car to drive through. What's more, there has been not a peep of protest from Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill _ not from Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle or from House Democratic Leader Dick Gephardt.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who was the principle author of the legislation, does not try to hide his disgust with his own party's behavior. He told Wall Street Journal columnist Albert Hunt recently that most Democratic leaders "want to have their cake and eat it too . . . they want to posture, even legislate, but still practice some of the old tricks."

Hunt wrote: "Party chairman Terry McAuliffe boasts Democrats forced President Bush to accept campaign finance legislation. But his own general counsel, working for the California Democratic Party, has filed suit charging the law is unconstitutional. Immediately after Senate Democrats voted last week to crack down on corporate abuses, a dozen Senate Democrats hopped on corporate jets to Nantucket for a soft-money get-together, reflecting, as Sen. Feingold notes, "an incredibly tin ear.' "

The soft-money chase is legal through this November's election, and both parties are making the most of this grace period. Corporate lobbyists are being swamped with money requests from members of Congress and their staffs. Both parties say a few rotten apples in Corporate America don't mean that all corporations are off limits as a source of campaign money. Was it Willie Sutton who said he robbed banks because that's where the money is? Well, politicians go to corporate interests with hat in hand because that's where the political money is.

The competition for money has even tarnished a group of elected officials who, above all others, should be free of the influence of corporate money _ state attorneys general. Yes, the same attorneys general who took on Big Tobacco and won, and who often are the strongest advocates for consumers in their states (Florida's Bob Butterworth is one of the best).

Last week, Democratic attorneys general from around the nation held their first fundraiser in California. They refused to release the list of corporate contributors or allow reporters to cover the event. Three years ago, when the Republican Attorneys General Association was created to raise campaign money, Democrats and campaign finance watchdogs criticized the GOP, saying attorneys general should not be raising money from corporations under state regulation. That was then. Now Democrats say they have no choice but to play the same game.

"I'm a realist, but I don't believe in unilateral disarmament," New Mexico Attorney General Patricia Madrid, one of the fundraiser's hosts, told the Associated Press.

Another host, Nevada Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa, seemed less comfortable with the event. "We're a nation whose leaders are campaigning rather than governing," she said. "Those people who think it's not impacting our system, they've got to get real."