How Fatcat Political Donors Buy Plum Presidential Appointments

A big Republican donor goes to his governor and senator, saying he was told by President Bush’s chief fund-raiser he’d be getting a plum ambassadorial appointment but it wasn’t delivered. The senator takes his case right to the top of the White House.

Nothing happens for two years.

The donor then helps stage a fund-raiser for Bush. A week later, the donor lands an appointment as the chairman of the federal board overseeing billions of dollars of student loans.

The aggressive job campaign of businessman Duane Acklie – detailed in the Nebraska gubernatorial files of new Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns – provides a rare window into donors, their access and their rewards.

And there’s a twist.

Acklie named names – including chief fund-raiser Jack Oliver – and committed to writing one of the unwritten rules of politics: Presidents for years have rewarded big donors with plum ambassadorships.

“My only interest, if I am going to serve, would be in serving as an ambassador or in a position involving trade,” Acklie wrote in a May 2001 “Dear Mike” letter to then-Gov. Johanns. The letter was contained in the official gubernatorial correspondence obtained by The Associated Press under Nebraska’s open records law.

“Jack Oliver told me several weeks ago that he was informed that I would not receive one of the eight major ambassadorships but would be receiving an ambassadorship,” Acklie wrote.

The owner of Crete Carrier Corp., a major trucking company, even wondered aloud why he hadn’t yet landed an ambassadorship when other Republicans who helped elect Bush in 2000 had already gotten theirs.

“Most of the appointments have been made. That is perfectly OK, and if others have done more work for the party, are better qualified or have helped the Bush team more, I certainly understand,” Acklie wrote. “I don’t understand why I haven’t heard a single thing after Jack Oliver’s comment to me.”

Acklie and Oliver both declined to be interviewed for this story.

Johanns’ office said the new agriculture secretary may have tried to help Acklie with the White House but couldn’t recall for sure. Johanns considers Acklie a “fine person” and would have no problem endorsing him, Agriculture Department spokeswoman Alisa Harrison said.

Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., however, remembers providing assistance.

He personally wrote the president and talked on the phone with White House chief of staff Andrew Card, personnel director Clay Johnson and political adviser Karl Rove, trying to get Acklie an appointment.

Hagel’s message was “this is one of Nebraska’s leading citizens, he’s been successful in business, a civic leader, that kind of thing,” spokesman Mike Buttry said.

The White House said it takes recommendations on appointments from all sorts of sources and then makes decisions on the merits.

Federal bribery laws prohibit public officials from directly promising a government action in return for donations or fund-raising help.

Charles La Bella, a former federal prosecutor who oversaw the 1990s investigation into Clinton-era fund-raising abuses, said Acklie’s letter wasn’t specific enough about a quid pro quo to warrant criminal prosecution.

“I think it’s standard operating procedure,” said La Bella, the former head of the Justice Department’s campaign finance task force. For it to cross the line into illegality, there has to be a “very crystal-clear quid pro quo,” in which someone pays to get a specific office, or is promised a specific job if they give a certain amount, La Bella said.

Larry Noble, the former chief enforcement lawyer for the Federal Election Commission, said Acklie’s letter “shows that contributions and fund raising do equal access and jobs.”

“There’s a lot of lobbying for these jobs,” Noble said.

For decades, presidents have rewarded some of their biggest supporters with coveted diplomatic jobs. Former President Clinton picked five $100,000-plus Democratic donors to be ambassadors in his first year in office. At least two dozen of Bush’s 2000 “pioneers” – $100,000-plus fund-raisers – or their spouses won ambassadorships.

Oliver was Bush’s fund-raising chief in 2000, overseeing the pioneers before moving over in 2001 to oversee the Republican National Committee’s fund raising.

“RNC officials do not play a role in presidential appointment decisions,” RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said, declining to further address Oliver’s dealings with Acklie.

Two years after his futile quest for an ambassadorship, Acklie established himself as a top moneyman for Bush’s re-election effort.

Acklie helped organize a $400,000 Omaha fund-raiser headlined by Vice President Dick Cheney in July 2003 and was on his way to becoming a “ranger,” an honorary campaign title bestowed on those who raised $200,000 or more for Bush. Last year, Acklie also became a “super ranger,” raising at least $300,000 for the RNC.

A week after the Omaha event, Bush nominated Acklie to the Student Loan Marketing Association’s board of directors as its designated chairman. Acklie lost the post when the board was dissolved late last year.

On the Net:

The letter obtained by AP can be viewed at

© 2005 The Associated Press