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The Cheerful Giver

A businessman with a corner on publishing court documents was also a master of political donations

By Viveca Novak and Michael Weisskopf

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 21) -- Happy is the man who rules his market, especially one as lucrative as Vance Opperman's. As president of West Publishing, the quasi-official publisher of court decisions, he has earned a fortune. And so when his empire was threatened in 1994 by potential competition from, of all places, the Justice Department, he called in a little help from his friends in Washington.

Fortunately for him, he had a lot of those. A major Democratic Party fund raiser, who with his father gave $195,000 in 1992-94, Opperman enjoyed a decades-old friendship with Al Gore and served as campaign-finance co-chairman for California Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1994. At a Democratic fund raiser that fall, Opperman took the opportunity to collar Bill Clinton and, as Democratic officials told TIME, asked him point-blank, "Can you get the Justice Department off my back?" Opperman recalls seeing Clinton but denies asking for a favor. He remembers how agitated he was at the time over an announcement by the Justice Department that it was exploring ways to help consumers gain cheaper online access to court opinions--a form of legal research that posed a threat to West's $800 million-a-year business.

Clinton didn't know the details but told Opperman he would have his counselor Mack McLarty look into it. McLarty, who had had business dealings with Opperman, met with him and White House lawyer Steve Neuwirth in his West Wing office. The object, says White House special counsel Lanny Davis, was to "determine what if any response the White House might have" to Opperman's concern. At McLarty's direction, Neuwirth made inquiries at Justice, and learned of a complicating issue. The department's Antitrust Division was investigating the online service industry West dominated for alleged monopolistic practices. The White House quickly bowed out.

After years of cultivating politicians and federal judges -- West regularly flew members of the judiciary to posh retreats -- Opperman had other chits to call in. Judges, Congressmen and thousands of West employees sent letters and made calls to Justice to plead Opperman's case. In February the department formally abandoned any online plans that would have undercut his company. Justice officials said cost and complexity, not political influence, determined the outcome. West soon thereafter won a $14.2 million contract to provide Justice with online legal research. Not only that, but the department's antitrust investigation never seemed to get off the ground.

That wasn't West's only Washington coup. Clinton had named Opperman in 1993 to an advisory panel that, among its many tasks, would review the first government report to recommend broad copyright protection for West's kind of reproduction of publically available information. The idea was potentially a saving grace for Opperman, whose franchise was considered to be threatened by a 1991 Supreme Court decision stripping copyright claims from publishers who assemble nonoriginal work, such as the phone book. By early 1996 the author of the report--Patents commissioner Bruce Lehman--was promoting the Opperman-friendly copyright measure and seeking to incorporate it in an international treaty. The timing was terrific for Opperman, who was in the process of making a deal to sell his Minnesota-based company for $3.4 billion to Thomson Corp. of Canada. With its copyright protection more secure, West would be able to preserve its bargaining position. The merger, like others of its size, needed approval by the Justice Department.

That decision came amid an extraordinary convergence of events for West. In May of last year, even as Lehman was presenting the U.S. treaty proposal in Geneva, Opperman was co-chairing a $250,000 campaign event for Gore in Minneapolis. The next month, Opperman attended a fund-raising coffee at the White House with Clinton. Several weeks later he dined with the Gores in Nashville, Tennessee. By that time, he had something to celebrate: the Justice Department had conditionally approved the merger. (Justice officials say that the White House never interfered with its investigations of West Publishing.) By December, the Administration abandoned the treaty proposal after scientific users of online data assailed it. But Opperman had already cashed in.

It may not have been clear at the time, but Opperman gave as good as he got in the '96 campaign. With so much at stake in Washington, he was wary of openly financing Clinton's party, fund raisers say. So he and his wife gave little to the Democratic National Committee ($30,000), instead scattering a total of $329,000 across 10 state parties. "I've been a political activist way before I had business interests," says Opperman. "I don't think there's any convergence." But it's a pairing that has rarely failed him.

--With reporting by Melissa August and Wendy King/Washington

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