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Moving Money Through State Capitals

A big Democratic donor makes 'directed donations' to state parties

By Brooks Jackson/CNN

WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, April 11) -- It was a $3.4 billion deal. Legal publisher West Publishing was selling out to a Canadian rival. But West's Vance Opperman needed the Clinton Administration's approval. The Justice Department's antitrust division was threatening to sue.

Only now is the full story beginning to emerge, buried in once-secret documents recently released by the White House.

A secret ledger sheet at the Democratic National Committee, dated June 4 last year, lists Opperman for eight contributions, totaling $155,000.

west publishing

The money went not directly to the national party; that would attract national attention.

The ledger shows the donations directed to states: $25,000 to the California party, $25,000 to New Jersey, $69,000 to New York, $5,000 to Colorado, $5,000 to Connecticut, $4,000 to Maryland, $11,000 to Rhode Island, and $11,000 to Washington.

Opperman's company already had such a huge share of the legal publishing business that smaller publishers implored the Justice Department to protect them and consumers. But they got a bad feeling while meeting with administration officials in late May.


"We were outside the main Justice building," said Eleanor Lewis, executive director of the American Association of Legal Publishers. "And we said, 'We think this is wired to go through, and it is wired from the highest levels ... from the White House."

And within weeks, on June 19, the Department of Justice announced an agreement allowing the sale. There were howls of protest. The American Lawyer called the terms a bad deal for consumers.

But Justice required only minor concessions from West. "I think they got everything they wanted," Lewis said. "They did fantastically ... They're in the catbird seat.


The DNC knew Opperman's $155,000 was coming before the administration approved the deal. But money was delivered just after -- $25,000 to the New Jersey Democratic party on July 8, $11,000 to Rhode Island on July 5.

Was the timing deliberate? Was the decision "wired?"

The Justice Department and Anne Bingaman -- the top official who signed off on the West merger -- categorically deny that anyone at the White House had anything to do with Justice OK'ing the deal.

CNN attempted to contact Oppererman for comment, to no avail.

President Bill Clinton's re-election campaign was spared such embarrassing questions. Reporters never knew about Opperman's big donation, which was disclosed only piecemeal, in eight different state capitals -- a deliberate ploy to avoid publicity, something insiders admit and outsiders say is obvious.

"I think their goal was to circumvent disclosure," said Kent Cooper of the watchdog group Center For Responsive Politics. "They're moving this money in a way that's a little bit more complicated than if they just wrote one big check to the Democratic National Committee ... They had to go through a few more steps, more complicated ones, basically to hide this money."

Democrats also routed gambling money through state capitals, including $250,000 from Mirage Resorts and $150,000 from a Chippewa band seeking a Detroit casino. Also, money from tobacco companies, the Teamsters union, Republican businessmen and even a $5,000 donation from a gay-rights crusader.

DNC documents show $2.5 million in such underground money.

So far the Justice department has insisted it has no conflict of interest in investigating the DNC affair and that no independent counsel is needed.

But now the question is whether one of the department's own decisions was "wired" to benefit a big Democratic donor, one whose underground contributions were deliberately hidden.

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