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Access for Sale: Influence peddling can haunt

Time cover

(TIME, September 19, 1988) -- Political consulting is a seasonal business, with big money made during campaign years and much less during off years. Consultants who worked for the Reagan-Bush campaigns, however, have solved the cyclical nature of the game by merging it with the influence-peddling business. While most of those who sell access do so only after toiling for the Government at modest wages, these entrepreneurial consultants skip the public-service stopover and move directly from helping elect a politician to selling their ties to him for high fees.

When the time comes to get back into politics, however, selling access can have its downside, as two top Bush campaign consultants, Stuart Spencer and Charles Black, are finding out. Each had what seemed to be a perfect client: the government of General Manuel Noriega of Panama (Spencer) and that of Prime Minister Lynden Pindling of the Bahamas (Black). Both politicians headed regimes that had full treasuries and lots of messy problems. But these drug-tainted leaders are proving to be unsavory associates for aides to a presidential candidate who favors the death penalty for drug dealers.

Black's firm sold its services in a proposal to the Pindling government on the basis of its "backchannel relationship" with the Reagan Administration. Black promoted his skills in the third person: "Many believe his meticulous organization of the key primary states resulted in President Reagan's nomination." The firm contacted the Vice President's office 18 times in 1985 and 1986 on behalf of the Bahamas. (Although Bush Campaign Manager Lee Atwater has been a partner in Black's firm, he avoids a conflict of interest by refusing to be part of the lobbying side of the business.)

Spencer, who heads Dan Quayle's campaign, tried to improve Noriega's image, under a contract with his firm worth $25,000 a month starting in late 1985. Campaign spokesmen say Spencer's services ended before a June 1986 New York Times series detailed the general's ties to drug trafficking. But according to documents his firm filed with the Justice Department, Spencer continued to work for Noriega well after that, under a contract renewed in August 1986. Back in the public eye as they restore ties to what they hope will be an Administration they can influence for another four years, these consultants-cum-lobbyists have reason to be choosier in the future about picking clients during political off years.

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