Top Republican media consultants Don Sipple and Mike Murphy, responding to last week’s Press Clips, deny that they had any role in the alleged kickback scheme involving the 1996 Dole for President campaign, now under investigation by the FBI.
In a May 1 conference call with the Voice and their attorney, Sipple and Murphy insisted that they had “minimal” involvement producing spots or purchasing airtime for the Dole campaign. They added that they reported to Dole pollster Tony Fabrizio, who, they said, controlled all of the campaign’s purchase of commercial airtime.
Murphy said that, prior to the Voice article, he had not heard from a single person about the FBI investigation. Sipple, however, said: “I was aware that the FBI is out interviewing a lot of different people” connected to the Dole ’96 campaign.
Both men declined, on advice of counsel, to say whether or not the FBI has contacted them as part of the investigation.
As reported last week, a GOP strategist charged in a memorandum after the ’96 campaign that top Dole staffers “were on the take, and bitter fights erupted over who was getting the most.” Public disclosure of that memo last fall appears to have triggered an FBI investigation. (The memo, entitled “Foundational Problems of Dole ’96 Campaign Staff, Or ‘Whatever,”‘ can be read in its entirety at www.thesmokinggun.com.)
Following the Voice report, the Kansas City Star confirmed the FBI investigation, citing, in an April 30 story, “three former members of Dole’s campaign team” whom the bureau had contacted. The FBI, the Star said, is trying to determine whether “top officials” in Dole’s campaign “received kickbacks in exchange for steering high-dollar media and telephone contracts to prominent consultants.”
Aside from a brief mention of the Voice story in USA Today, most of the national media have yet to report on the FBI probe.
Former Dole staffers told the Voice that the FBI asked them questions about the media production and airtime purchasing arrangements set up by Sipple and Murphy, as well as about the circumstances under which the pair left the campaign. But Benjamin Ginsburg, the former Republican National Committee counsel who now represents Sipple and Murphy, told the Voice: “Whatever the FBI may be investigating, it cannot be any illicit activities” by Sipple, Murphy, or their now defunct company New Century Media.
Several former Dole staffers have said that the campaign’s commercial airtime purchases were overseen by Fabrizio. This is peculiar for two reasons. First, Fabrizio was ostensibly a pollster for the campaign, and pollsters do not ordinarily handle the media “buy” in presidential campaigns. Second, as the Newsweek team that authored the campaign book Back From the Dead put it, Fabrizio’s “experience was all from state and local campaigns, not presidential campaigns.”
A protege of the infamous pollster–strategist Arthur Finkelstein, Fabrizio had a prominent role in the Dole campaign, and “liked to posture as a bad boy,” according to Back From the Dead. “He taped his nickname, ‘The Rat,’ onto his nameplate at Dole headquarters.”
According to former Dole staffers who have been interviewed by the FBI, the bureau is interested in whether Fabrizio and/or other Dole campaign officials paid themselves by receiving a percentage of the media “buy.” Fabrizio told the Voice that one of his companies, Multi-Media Services Corporation, “served as the official media placement agency for the Dole campaign during the primary elections” and for some of the media buys during the general election. Fabrizio says his firm received 1.25 per cent “of the gross media expenditures during the general election.” Thus, if the campaign purchased a million dollars in TV ad time, Fabrizio’s firm would receive $12,500. Overall, the Dole campaign spent some $40 million on media.
Fabrizio did not disclose whether or not he has discussed this arrangement with the FBI. He maintains that all such payments “were documented, reported and fully disclosed by the Dole Primary and General election campaign committees as required by law. These payments are a matter of public record for anyone to see.” He added that “to the best of my knowledge [Dole campaign manager] Scott Reed approved all contracts with the campaign.”
A Voice review of numerous Federal Election Commission filings reveals that Fabrizio made staggering amounts of money this way. In January 1996, for example, MultiMedia Services received $1.226 million for “media placement,” (a figure suggesting that either that sum was the total advertising expense, or Fabrizio’s fee during the primaries was much higher than 1.25 per cent). In a two-week period in September, MultiMedia Services received nearly $197,000 for “media expense.” On November 2, 1996, the Dole campaign paid MultiMedia Services $160,000 for “media expense.”
During the period that Sipple and Murphy worked for the campaign, their contract required the 1.25 per cent fee to go to Fabrizio’s firm.
Although originally formed in June 1996 to handle the bulk of Dole’s ad campaign, New Century was disbanded following what the consultants called “a power struggle” with top Dole staffers. Murphy told the Voice he worked “probably 65 days” for the Dole campaign.
Nonetheless, the pair spent large sums and were handsomely compensated for their efforts. New Century Media received $190,000 in “consulting fees” in early September 1996, according to FEC records, on top of nearly $1.28 million in “media expense” reimbursements in August and September of that year. (One difference between New Century and Fabrizio is that Sipple and Murphy actually made the spots, whereas Fabrizio mostly just placed them.)
According to Back From the Dead, Dole campaign manager Reed and Fabrizio “were frustrated” by their inability to control Sipple and Murphy, and Reed insisted that the pair leave. Asked if it was possible that the FBI is examining the circumstances under which they were asked to leave the campaign, Sipple said there “are dozens of possible scenarios” for what, exactly, tripped the FBI inquiry.
“There was interpersonal, understandable acrimony that went on,” Sipple acknowledged. Both men, however, denied the account, given by a Voice source, that they refused to show the Dole campaign their accounting books upon leaving the campaign. “There were lengthy meetings with the campaign’s accountant and attorneys,” Sipple said. “We went through hoops.”
The question is: even if the sums paid to Dole media consultants were huge, does any of this violate the law? Fabrizio insists that it’s all aboveboard, and points to a January 4, 1998 Washington Post article indicating that some of Clinton’s ’96 campaign consultants reaped profits of six- and seven figures.
“It is conceivable,” says one former Dole staffer, “that the FBI has been misled to believe that what are actually standard campaign arrangements were, in this case, ‘kickbacks.”‘
Another prong of the FBI inquiry appears to concern the Dole campaign’s contracts for telemarketing services during the ’96 primaries. More than any presidential campaign in history, the Dole campaign made extensive use of the controversial technique known as “push polling.” Like regular pollsters, push pollsters call potential voters seeking to know how they will vote. But push pollsters also plant negative information about a campaign rival, often without identifying themselves as working for a particular candidate.
For example, the Dole campaign made tens of thousands of calls before the Iowa caucuses. In some of those calls, according to a Wall Street Journal article, the recipients were told that Steve Forbes’s flat tax proposal “would cost [farmers] more in tax money.”
The Dole campaign paid a New York–based company called Campaign Tel just over $1 million in a single month–January 1996–for these services, according to FEC records. (By comparison, Fabrizio’s traditional polling firm received a $20,000 monthly consulting fee during the general election, and generally charged between $10,000 and $30,000 for an individual poll.)
Former Dole advisers have told the Voice and Kansas City Star that the FBI asked them questions about possible kickbacks connected to Campaign Tel’s contracts. Steve Goldberg, who ran Campaign Tel during the 1996 election, did not return Voice calls seeking comment. When asked last fall about kickback allegations, Goldberg told Capital Style the charge was “ludicrous,” adding: “I’m pretty certain it wasn’t going on.”
Media Scorecard: Of all the media noise made over Israel’s 50th anniversary, the best package by far was in The Economist. One of the British mag’s stories, for example, reminded readers that–despite the U.S. media’s lazy focus on “Israelis” versus “Arabs”–one out of five Israeli citizens is an Arab. The worst was New York 1’s coverage of Governor George Pataki’s visit–in addition to being boring, the handshake-by-handshake treatment seems highly questionable in an election year
Research: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie