Sunday, December 26, 2004

College Republicans' Fundraising Criticized
College Republicans' Fundraising Criticized
Front Organizations Were Used in Direct-Mail Campaign That Collected Millions

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 26, 2004; Page A05

The College Republican National Committee is under fire for using front organizations to collect millions of dollars in contributions, including money from elderly people with dementia.

During the 2004 campaign, the group sent out direct-mail solicitations under such letterheads as "Republican Headquarters 2004" and "Republican Election Committee."

One four-page letter asked prospects to send $1,000 together with an American flag pin for President Bush to wear to "Republican Headquarters" to ensure that Bush knows "there are millions who are giving him the shield of God to protect him in the difficult days ahead."

In small print at the bottom of one page, the letter notes: "A project of and paid for by College Republican National Committee."

Many donors complained that they thought the money was going directly to the Republican Party, and not to the college group, which is no longer affiliated with the GOP. The controversy over the letters has produced angry responses from leaders of state College Republican chapters, including those in Washington state, North Carolina and New York.

The University of Washington College Republicans approved a resolution calling on Eric Hoplin, chairman of the national committee, "to take full responsibility for his actions," acknowledge that those actions have substantially harmed the College Republicans grass-roots organization and "promptly resign."

Dan Centinello, New York College Republicans chairman, complained that the national leaders have not taken prompt and decisive action to correct the situation. "I don't want to see hard work by all of us be tarnished by a fundraising scandal," he said.

Internal disputes over fundraising tactics have been brewing among College Republican groups for at least three years, but they surfaced in late October, after the publication of damaging news reports in the Seattle Times and the Durham Herald-Sun.

The Times reported that a number of elderly donors gave far more money than they could afford.

"I don't have any more money," Cecilia Barbier, 90, a retired church worker in New York who made more than 300 donations totaling nearly $100,000, told the paper. "That was all the savings. . . . Now I'm scrounging."

Monda Jo Millsap, 68, of Van Buren, Ark., told the Times that she emptied a savings account, then got a $5,000 bank loan to give a total of $59,000.

In the immediate aftermath, Hoplin e-mailed top state officials of the organization, telling them not to speak to the news media. "We need the story to go away," he wrote. "The story is full of lies and distortions written by a well-known liberal who is out to get us. If the press asks you about it, tell them you have no comment."

Hoplin declined to be interviewed for this report. He told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, "We've come to discover that there are a few donors who have been confused, a few donors who have some form of dementia, who aren't entirely sure of the amount of money that they're giving -- and how often they're giving." He said that donors who believe they were misled will have their money refunded.

Late last month, the College Republican executive board approved a verbal resolution proposed by Hoplin to review and likely cancel the organization's direct-mail contract with Virginia-based Response Dynamics Inc., according to sources who attended.

The College Republicans once were an arm of the Republican National Committee. In anticipation of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, it became independent and formed in April of that year what is known as a 527 organization under the tax code. Since then, the College Republicans have raised $14.8 million, largely through the direct-mail program run by Response Dynamics.

Ron Kanfer, who operates Response Dynamics, defended the company's solicitations. "When you mail out a million letters and somebody does something inadvertently and it's pointed out, they get a refund," he said. He added that all fundraising letters from the College Republicans are approved by top officials of the group.

Kanfer noted that since Response Dynamics took the account, "the College Republican budget has increased twenty-five-fold." The mailings, he said, use "the same lists that every Republican fundraiser basically mails -- gun owners, pro-life activists, businessmen who don't like attorneys. It would be absurd to think we have lists called 'dementia people.' "