Video: Cleland protests anti-Kerry ads

msnbc.com news services
updated 8/25/2004 8:16:27 PM ET 2004-08-26T00:16:27

An election lawyer for President Bush who also has been advising a veterans group running TV ads against Democrat John Kerry resigned Wednesday from Bush’s campaign.

“I cannot begin to express my sadness that my legal representations have become a distraction from the critical issues at hand in this election,” Benjamin Ginsberg wrote in a resignation letter to Bush released by the campaign.

“I feel I cannot let that continue, so I have decided to resign as national counsel to your campaign to ensure that the giving of legal advice to decorated military veterans, which was entirely within the boundaries of the law, doesn’t distract from the real issues upon which you and the country should be focusing.”

Ginsberg’s acknowledgment Tuesday evening that he was providing legal advice to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth marked the second time in days that an individual associated with the Bush-Cheney campaign had been connected to the group, which Kerry accuses of being a front for the Republican incumbent’s re-election effort.

Federal election rules bar organizations that take unrestricted donations from coordinating their activities with campaigns or political parties.

In March, when the Republican National Committee and the Bush campaign filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) accusing anti-Bush groups such as the Media Fund and America Coming Together (ACT) of illegal coordination with the Kerry campaign, it was Ginsberg who met with reporters to elaborate on the issue.

Ginsberg called Kerry “the largest beneficiary of illegal soft money from wealthy special interests since Watergate and the campaign finance reforms that were put in place at that time.”

Bush campaign spokesman Scott Stanzel said the law does not impose restrictions on lawyers, adding: “There has been no coordination at any time” between the campaign and the Swift Boat group.

Likewise, Mike Russell, spokesman for the Swift Boat group, denied any coordination with the campaign. He said Ginsberg had agreed to continue advising the group.

But Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill countered: “The sudden resignation of Bush’s top lawyer doesn’t end the extensive web of connections between George Bush and the group trying to smear John Kerry’s military record. In fact, it only confirms the extent of those connections.”

Cleland appears at Bush’s ranch
Meanwhile, Vietnam veteran and former Sen. Max Cleland Wednesday rolled up to President Bush's Crawford, Texas, ranch in his wheelchair to deliver a public protest against what he called "disgraceful" attacks against Kerry's Vietnam war service.

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"The question is where is George Bush's honor. The question is where is his shame," Cleland said after Bush's guards refused to accept his letter calling on the president to "recognize this blatant attempt at character assassination, and publicly condemn it."

Cleland rolled his wheelchair back and forth across the road and around barricades trying to give the letter to a Secret Service agent, state trooper or a Bush aide, all of whom evaded him. Cleland lost both his legs and one arm while serving in Vietnam.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan described Cleland's appearance at Crawford as a "political stunt".

    
Lawyers on the Democratic side are also representing both the campaign or party and outside groups running ads in the presidential race. Ginsberg’s dual role has drawn attention because of an ad the Swift Boat Veterans group ran accusing Kerry of exaggerating his Vietnam War record, an issue that has dominated the campaign since early August.

Kerry has fired back by accusing Bush of using the group as a front to run a smear campaign for him. Democrats have jumped on any tie, even if legal, to back up that claim.

Ginsberg defends actions
Ginsberg said he never told the Bush campaign what he discussed with the group, or vice versa, and didn’t advise the group on ad strategies. Video: Swift Boat vet talks

The group “came to me and said, ‘We have a point of view we want to get into the First Amendment debate right now. There’s a new law. It’s very complicated. We want to comply with the law, will you keep us in the bounds of the law?”’ Ginsberg said in an interview Tuesday with The Associated Press. “I said yes, absolutely, as I would do for anyone.”

Ginsberg said he had not yet decided whether to charge the Swift Boat Veterans a fee for his work.

On Saturday, retired Air Force Col. Ken Cordier resigned as a member of the Bush campaign’s veterans steering committee after it was learned that he appeared in the commercial.

Kerry, meanwhile, is the subject of complaints by the Bush campaign and the Republican National Committee accusing his campaign of illegally coordinating anti-Bush ads with soft-money groups on the Democratic side, allegations he and the groups deny.

Neither campaign has produced proof of coordination on the part of its rival.


Joe Sandler, a lawyer for the DNC and a group running anti-Bush ads, MoveOn.org, said there is nothing wrong with serving in both roles at once.

In addition to the FEC’s coordination rules, attorneys are ethically bound to maintain attorney-client confidentiality, Sandler said. They could lose their law license if they violate that, he said.

Ginsberg represented the Bush campaign in 2000 and became a prominent figure during the Florida recount.

He also served as counsel to the RNC in its unsuccessful lawsuit seeking to overturn the nation’s campaign finance law, which banned the national party committees from collecting corporate, union and unlimited donations known as soft money and imposed stricter rules on coordination involving parties, candidates and interest groups.

Larry Noble, head of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics campaign watchdog group and former FEC general counsel, said it’s true that serving as a lawyer for both a campaign and a soft-money group isn’t considered automatic evidence of coordination under commission rules, but added that it doesn’t mean the FEC won’t look at it.

“I think there’s a valid question about when you’re talking about strictly legal advice and when you’re talking about policy issues and strategic issues,” Noble said. “It’s fair to ask what the advice is about.”

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