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A New Witness To The Teamster Cash-Swap Plan

By Michael Weisskopf and Michael Duffy

Time cover

(TIME, October 13) -- In the Democrats' devil-may-care pursuit of campaign money, no scheme was bolder than the secret financial alliance between the party and the re-election campaign of Teamster president Ron Carey. The trade-off, as proposed by Carey aides, boiled down to this: the Teamsters would deliver $1 million to the party's state branches around the country, and in exchange the party would tap its donors to provide Carey with $100,000 for his re-election bid. The true purpose: to funnel cash from the Teamster treasury into Carey's campaign, an illegal act that had to be done circuitously to avoid detection. But when no Democratic money turned up in Carey's pocket, it looked like another crazy idea that went nowhere.

That doesn't mean Democratic National Committee officials and their Teamster friends didn't try to make it happen. Chicago businessman Mark Thomann, who worked for the D.N.C. as a fund raiser in 1996, has told TIME that he was directed by the party's finance chief to deliver to the Carey team $100,000 from a foreign donor and that he was pressured to follow through by a Teamster lawyer sent his way by D.N.C. officials in Washington. Thomann's story, told to federal prosecutors as well as to Senate investigators, is the most solid evidence yet that party officials actively participated in the scheme before it went bust.

The sweetheart deal had its roots in a June 1996 fund raiser at the palatial San Francisco home of Senator Dianne Feinstein and her financier husband Richard Blum. The $25,000-a-couple dinner has already gained notoriety because of its guest list, a power lineup including President Clinton, top party and Administration officials, even Asian-American fund raiser John Huang. Given all those luminaries, hardly anyone noticed the presence of Judith Vasquez, a thirtysomething Filipina developer, who pledged $100,000 for a chance to be photographed with the President. As a foreigner, she couldn't legally contribute to his party, so she directed her donation to Vote Now '96, a Democratic-leaning get-out-the-vote group.

Thomann, then 29, landed in San Francisco a couple of weeks later as the D.N.C.'s northern California finance director. His first job was to collect the outstanding money committed at the Blum-Feinstein dinner--including the Vasquez contribution. Before long, Thomann got a phone call from Richard Sullivan, the party's finance director in Washington. Thomann said Sullivan informed him of a "change in direction" for the Vasquez pledge. Sullivan wanted the money routed to Carey's campaign, as long as Thomann made sure it was legal, according to Thomann's depositions. He was told by Sullivan that someone from the Teamsters would call to iron out any problems, Thomann recalls. As a veteran campaign worker, he was puzzled by the instructions.

What Thomann didn't know was the chain of events that had begun weeks earlier when a Carey campaign consultant, Martin Davis, approached a top Democratic fund raiser, Laura Hartigan, with the plan for the lopsided contribution swap. Hartigan, in turn, pressed Sullivan to find a big donor for the Carey campaign to carry out the D.N.C.'s part of the bargain. The Teamsters, meanwhile, kept their word, sending an initial $236,000 to Democratic parties in 35 states at the end of the month, according to court papers.

Oblivious to these larger machinations, Thomann went about his business and quickly determined that Vasquez was an employer and thus barred from giving to the union campaign. He informed Sullivan that the idea wouldn't fly, but he had a harder time breaking the news to a Teamster lawyer named Nathaniel Charny, who, just as Sullivan had predicted, had tracked Thomann down by phone a few days earlier and pressured him for the money, Thomann says. In the return call, Charny (who declined comment) was upset that the D.N.C. official had given up so easily, and suggested that Vasquez's husband write the check. Thomann demurred. He then informed Sullivan and the attorneys handling the matter for Vasquez that he wanted no part in the transaction. The $100,000 ended up going to Vote Now '96.

The broad outline of the Vasquez gambit was disclosed by federal prosecutors last month when Davis and two other Carey associates pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the complex plan to channel Teamster money into Carey's campaign. So far no Democratic party officials have been charged. In an interview, Sullivan said he never took the Davis deal seriously. He simply asked Thomann to see if the transfer from Vasquez to Carey was "possible," Sullivan said, and dropped the issue after that. What Senate investigators want to know is how far the grand swap extended, which is why Mark Thomann is scheduled to take an oath before Fred Thompson's Donorgate committee this week.

--With reporting by Edward Barnes/New York





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