Democratic presidential front-runner John Kerry often portrays himself as an outsider who is battling Washington's special interests. But an NBC News investigation shows a different story.
Kerry says it virtually everyday, insisting, "I have spent my whole life fighting for what I think is right and against powerful special interests," and "I've stood up against them," and "Nobody has ever suggested that I've done other than to take them on, those special interests."
But while candidate Kerry now brags about standing up to special interests, he actually has sat down with many of them, inviting a who's who of special interests to his home for dinner.
In the summer of 2002, Senate Democrats gathered their biggest corporate and union donors -- including NBC's parent company General Electric (MSNBC is a joint venture with NBC and Microsoft) for a weekend on exclusive Nantucket Island. The big dinner was hosted by Sen. Kerry, at his seaside estate.
The guest list, provided to NBC, reveals that among those attending the dinner were representatives of five companies under investigation at the time, by the Securities and Exchange Commission, for accounting irregularities and misleading stock ratings.
Chuck Lewis, of the Center for Public Integrity, regularly criticizes the fundraising practices of both parties. “[Kerry] is a candidate,” says Lewis, “that has raised tens of millions from these people and he had them over to his estate. You know, don't tell me you are against special interests, they are you."
A Kerry spokesman now says the senator did not vet the guests, and hosted the dinner simply to help his party.
Another Kerry claim has been, "The only people who have contributed to me are individual Americans."
But official documents show that's not entirely true. Kerry recently received $450,000 from corporations and unions for one account that funded the groundwork for his presidential campaign.
Kerry insists contributors get nothing for their money, but critics, like Lewis, see the record differently.
“This is a guy,” says Lewis, “who has helped a number of people over the years, who have given him money in very explicit precise ways."
For example, in 1996, Kerry met with Democratic contributor Johnny Chung and Chinese businesswoman Liu Chaoying. That day, Kerry's office faxed a letter to the SEC, and Chung and Liu got a private briefing.
Kerry then thanked Chung for being willing "to help with my campaign" and within weeks Chung hosted a Kerry fundraiser.
Kerry initially denied he'd met Chung before the fundraiser, then called the timing of the SEC meeting and the fundraiser "totally coincidental."
Sen. Kerry is among the most prolific Democratic fundraisers, though not in a league with President George W. Bush. Many believe Kerry's no more or no less beholden to special interests than most politicians. What sets him apart, critics say, are his recent claims to be their enemy.
Lisa Myers is NBC News’ senior investigative correspondent.