In the last week of March the nation’s Republican attorneys general all came to Austin. Any competent news reporter could have used the event to anchor a big story on campaign finance reform – if the press had been allowed to attend. But the press had no access when the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) convened at Barton Creek Resort. Big donors did. Microsoft, SBC, Sprint, GTE, and Aetna were expected, and some of these big players may have given as much as $25,000 in soft money to the new Republican group. It’s impossible to know exactly how much the companies gave or how their money will be spent; all donations to RAGA are controlled by the Republican National State Elections Committee, an arm of the Republican National Committee. While it does not provide separate figures for monies donated by members, the pool of money is huge. According to the Federal Election Commission, in the first six months of last year the State Elections Committee took in $15.2 million and spent $8.8 million.
That much money – even when you can’t trace all of it – buys a lot of access. The group was penciled in for a reception at the Governor’s Mansion, until the Austin-based Center for Public Integrity publicized the event – and it was moved to the upscale Shoreline Grill. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan says Bush never intended to attend the Governor’s Mansion reception, and perhaps he didn’t. But RAGA members don’t need face time with Bush to exercise their influence. There are many connections between RAGA and the Bush campaign. Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, addressed the group. Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, a longtime Bush ally, who is one of the founders of RAGA, hosted the event. And South Carolina Attorney General Charles Condon, another Bush backer who appeared on the stump on several occasions with Bush in South Carolina, also attended.
Then there is the money trail. According to F.E.C. records, Microsoft, GTE, and Sprint have given a total of $180,000 to the R.N.S.E.C. since January of last year. F.E.C. records show that Microsoft has given $145,000, Sprint has given $15,000, and GTE has given $25,000. According to one source, phone giant SBC gave $25,000 and insurance giant Aetna gave a large donation. How much of that money was given to RAGA? Jennifer Lustina, director of Cornyn’s political office, Texans for John Cornyn, refused comment. Numerous calls to the RAGA office in Washington, D.C. were not returned.
There are also questions about the propriety of the meetings. Many of the companies who have given money to the R.N.S.E.C. (and perhaps, therefore, to RAGA) may have antitrust or legal issues that will be handled by the attorneys general they met in Austin. Most prominent is Microsoft, and while it’s difficult to prove what influences policy decisions, South Carolina A.G. Charles Condon dropped his state’s antitrust claim against Microsoft in late 1998 – shortly after Microsoft donated $20,000 to the South Carolina Republican Party.
RAGA is also reportedly accepting money from Aetna, even though the state of Texas has pending lawsuits against two Aetna entities: Aetna U.S. Healthcare Inc., and Aetna Health Plans of North Texas, Inc. The two Aetna companies and four other health maintenance organizations allegedly made contracts with doctors that encourage the doctors to limit medically necessary care. The suits are among the largest legal challenges ever made in Texas against the managed care industry, and include charges brought under the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act, one of the state’s most powerful legal tools for protecting consumers. Could Aetna officials try to lobby Cornyn at the RAGA event? Cornyn’s press officials refused to talk about RAGA and referred all calls to Cornyn’s political office, which refused to answer any questions. And what’s the latest on the Aetna case? Heather Browne, a spokesperson for Cornyn’s office, said “discussions are ongoing.”
Tom Smith, the Texas state director of Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer group, criticized the RAGA conference, saying “those who donate get special access and opportunities to pitch their policies that others who can’t afford the price of admission don’t get. It’s improper. It’s as reprehensible as Clinton renting out the Lincoln Bedroom.”
The meeting also raises questions about how vigilant the A.G.s will be on issues like tobacco and other mass tort claims. Of the forty-three attorneys general in the U.S. that are elected, twelve are Republicans. And they have made it clear that they oppose using state prosecutors to sue large industries like Big Tobacco to recover billions of dollars spent caring for sick smokers. Said one source close to RAGA, the group was started because the A.G.s were concerned about “making laws through the courthouse that weren’t made through the state house.”
In the week before the conference Cornyn told the Houston Chronicle that raising money is a “necessary but unpleasant part of seeking and holding public office. For better or worse, candidates for public office have to raise money to get elected.” But he added that the money he has raised “has not influenced my official actions.”
While that may be the case, the reason for creating RAGA appears to be an effort to counter the soft money being given to Democrats by the nation’s trial lawyers. Lawyers who were involved in the tobacco litigation and other big tort claims are funneling tens of millions of dollars into the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic organizations in an effort to stem the tort reform agenda being pushed by the Republicans. RAGA appears to the GOP’s attempt to wring soft money out of the major corporations that could face large-scale civil suits by plaintiffs represented by trial lawyers. And although Bush decided not to appear at the RAGA event, he has made it clear he is closely aligned with the Republican A.G.s. In February he told the Financial Times: “I am not sympathetic to lawsuits. Write that down. I worry about the effect of lawsuits on job creation. “If you are looking for the kind of president I will be, I will be slow to litigate.”
Robert Bryce is a staff writer at the Austin Chronicle, where an earlier version of this article appeared.