Video: Kerry defends war record

By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 8/20/2004 7:02:16 PM ET 2004-08-20T23:02:16

Can Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry prove his allegation that the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group airing ads denigrating his service as a Navy officer in Vietnam, are nothing more than "a front for the Bush campaign"?

In one sense, that may be an immaterial question if voters decide that the group is part of an overall anti-Kerry strategy that is approved or assented to by President Bush or his campaign aides.

A Bush campaign spokesman said Thursday the charge that the campaign was in cahoots with The Swift Boat group "is absolutely and completely false.”

Nonetheless, the Kerry campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission on Friday against the Swift Boat Veterans, accusing the group of "violating the law with inaccurate ads that are illegally coordinated with the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign and Republican National Committee."

Last March the Republican National Committee and President Bush’s campaign filed a similar complaint with the FEC accusing anti-Bush groups such as the Media Fund and America Coming Together of a conspiracy to violate federal election laws by coordinating with the Kerry campaign.

The groups have collected millions in contributions from labor unions and wealthy donors such as George Soros and Peter Lewis.

FEC investigations of such coordination complaints often take many months and even years to be resolved.

Bush himself said last week that Kerry is “justifiably proud of his record in Vietnam,” which Bush called “noble service.” Bush did not specifically call for the Swift Boat veterans ad to be pulled off the air.

Kerry pointed to one of the Republicans helping fund the Swift Boat ad effort, veteran Texas GOP donor Bob Perry who has given $2,000 contribution to the Bush re-election campaign and $200,000 to the Swift Boat group.

The question of coordination — did anyone in the Bush campaign suggest the anti-Kerry ad or assent to it? — has now become an important issue in the campaign.

Video: 'Any questions?' A Section 527 group
The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth is organized as a non-party, independent political group under Section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code.

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Coordination between a 527 group and a presidential campaign is illegal.

If Kerry’s team can establish that Bush adviser Karl Rove or any Bush campaign operative coordinated in some way with donor Perry or with Swift Boat veterans officials, that might result in legal penalties and damage the Bush re-election effort.

What does it take to prove coordination under the FEC rules?

To prove, for example, that an outside group’s ad was coordinated with a candidate’s campaign, any one of the following is required, according to FEC spokesman Bob Biersack:

  • The ad being aired by the group was broadcast at the request or suggestion of the candidate, his campaign or an agent of the campaign.
  • The group suggested the ad and the candidate or his agent assented to the ad, for example, by saying something such as, “That sounds like a good idea to me.”
  • The candidate or his agent was materially involved in decisions about the content of the ad, the times and places where it would air, the medium used, etc.
  • The ad was aired after what the FEC calls “substantial discussion” between the person or outside group paying for the ad and the campaign. If, for example, a campaign manager said to the head of a 527 group, “Over the next two weeks, our campaign’s ads will focus on the loss of textile jobs in this state,” and the outside group then ran its own ads buttressing that message, it would be coordination.

"It's very difficult" to prove coordination, said former FEC general counsel Larry Noble, who is now head of the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. A case "is very much reliant on showing that certain types of discussions took place and the only way to get that (evidence) is from the people involved."

On a few occasions, FEC probes have resulted in penalties. In one 1982 case the commission found coordination between the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC) and the Bruce Caputo for Senate campaign in New York. The campaign paid a $3,000 civil penalty for coordinating with NCPAC on their "independent expenditures" against Caputo's opponent.

If as a result of its investigation, the FEC finds probable cause to believe the law has been violated, it tries to settle with the culprits, for example by getting them to agree to pay a civil penalty.

Lawsuit would be next
If the FEC and the accused group can’t agree on a penalty, then the commission files suit in federal court and a judge determines whether there has been a violation.

Last winter, Kerry himself was accused by his rival Howard Dean of using a front group to run a hard-hitting TV ad in early primary states New Hampshire and South Carolina, featuring a grainy image of Osama bin Laden.

“There are those who wake up every morning determined to destroy Western civilization. Americans want a president who can face the dangers ahead, but Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience,” the ad’s narrator said as the ominous image of bin Laden grew larger on the screen.

A 527 group called Americans for Jobs, Healthcare and Progressive Values paid for the ad.

Among the group’s financial backers were the International Association of Machinists, a union that had endorsed Rep. Dick Gephardt for the Democratic nomination, and former New Jersey Sen. Bob Torricelli, who raised funds for Kerry and donated $2,000 to Kerry’s campaign.

“What we now see is that John Kerry is part of the corrupt political culture in Washington," Dean said in February after finding out about the funding of the ad.

“First he sided with the president on the war ... now we find he is more like President Bush than we ever imagined," Dean said.

He added, "If we have to become like Republicans in order to beat them, then I think the Democratic Party needs to change fundamentally, and I don't think John Kerry is capable of changing the political culture in Washington."

Dean said he had no evidence that Torricelli had donated the money at Kerry's behest.

And a Kerry spokesman said the campaign knew nothing about the bin Laden ad.

But, Dean said, “The link is unassailable. The same fund-raiser who was ethically challenged and had to step aside from a Senate race because of that, raised money from the same donors to support both Senator Kerry and the political action group."

So, too, on Thursday Kerry pointed to GOP donor Perry as the key link to the Bush campaign.

And a non-partisan group called Texans for Public Justice that researches political contributions in Texas elections issued a statement Thursday saying that Perry had worked with Rove as early as 1986 when Perry served as campaign treasurer for Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Clements and Rove was as a campaign consultant to Clements.

"Each side has groups that will take on the dirty fighting," said Noble. "And candidates will claim they're not coordinating with them To most voters, the distinctions disappear, they're not much aware of who's paying for the ads."

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