The Oval: Donor Woes

On Oct. 30, 2003, more than 600 people gathered inside a Hyatt Regency hotel ballroom in downtown Columbus, Ohio, where they lunched on roast-beef sandwiches and listened to President Bush deliver a campaign speech. With admission priced at $2,000 a person, the luncheon raised more than $1.4 million for the president's re-election effort.

But some attendees got more than just an expensive lunch. Individuals who sponsored a $20,000 table at the event--that is, they convinced 10 people to give $2,000 apiece--got to take their picture with Bush. One of those people was Thomas Noe, a Toledo-area rare-coin dealer who ranked as one of the president's biggest fund-raisers and chaired Bush's northwest Ohio re-election campaign.

The event is now the subject of a federal investigation into whether Noe violated campaign-finance laws by reimbursing individuals for contributions to the Bush campaign. According to the Columbus Dispatch, at least $25,000 in contributions collected at the event came from the same bank account. Furthermore, at least one donor at the luncheon has told authorities he was reimbursed by Noe for his $2,000 contribution.

Noe, a longtime GOP contributor, is also the subject of an investigation for his handling of $55 million Ohio's Bureau of Workers' Compensation gave him to invest in rare coins. Noe's attorney Bill Wilkinson has confirmed that as much as $13 million of that money is now missing.

According to the Bush campaign, Noe was a "Major League Pioneer" who raised more than $100,000 for the president's re-election effort. Personally, Noe and his wife, Bernadette, each wrote $2,000 checks to the Bush campaign. Last week, the White House announced that Bush would return the Noes' $4,000, but the campaign would not refund the money Noe had raised from other people.

When asked about the distinction, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said the campaign has made a practice of returning contributions from individuals accused of wrongdoing. "The campaign, if you'll go back and look, has returned contributions from individuals that maybe have been convicted of crimes, and so forth," McClellan said. "This one is a certainly unique situation that raises some very serious allegations, and we felt it was the right thing to do to return the contributions that he had made to the campaign."

But at the same time, the Bush campaign has made no move to return contributions from another high-profile donor currently under federal investigation: embattled lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who, like Noe, raised more than $100,000 for Bush's re-election efforts in 2004. Two congressional committees and the Justice Department are probing Abramoff's lobbying on behalf of Indian tribes, as well as his connections to several members of Congress, including Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Abramoff gave $2,000 to the Bush campaign during the 2004 cycle, and an administration official told NEWSWEEK last month that the campaign had no plans to refund the contribution or the money Abramoff solicited from other individuals.

What makes the decision to return Noe's money even more significant is that Bush often rejects calls to distance himself from his troubled donors. Back in 2002, the president opted against returning contributions from Enron chief Kenneth Lay and his counterparts at the height of that energy company's downfall. Lay, then a longtime Bush pal, raised more than $100,000 for the president's campaign in 2000. He also personally gave $100,000 to the president's Inaugural committee, a contribution that was matched by Enron. Bush also received $1,000 apiece from former Enron executives Andrew Fastow and Jeff Skilling, who, along with Lay, have been indicted for their role in Enron's collapse. Questions about Lay's efforts to influence the administration's energy policies prompted a full-blown legal war over access to documents related to an energy task force chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney. (A judge recently ruled the documents do not have to be made public.) Yet Bush declined to refund any Enron-related contributions.

Several other top Bush fund-raisers have come under fire recently, including Maurice (Hank) Greenberg, who has raised more than $300,000 for Bush's presidential campaigns. In April, Greenberg was forced to step down from the American International Group amid an investigation into accounting improprieties at the insurance giant. Meanwhile, Charles and Sam Wyly, Texas brothers and longtime contributors to Bush's political campaigns, are currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service for buying their company's stock through offshore tax trusts. While Charles Wyly raised $100,000 for Bush's 2000 campaign, the brothers are perhaps best known for the other ways they've tried to influence the president's campaigns. In 2000, the Wylys spent $2.5 million on a series of TV ads trashing the record of Bush's primary opponent, John McCain. In 2004, the Wylys contributed $20,000 to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group that aired political ads against John Kerry.

Pressing for the Patriot Act Speaking of Ohio, Bush is scheduled to make his fourth visit this year to the Buckeye State on Thursday, where he'll speak about the Patriot Act during a visit to the Ohio State Patrol Academy in Columbus. Why Ohio? The White House says Bush will detail how local law-enforcement officials used the antiterrorism law to crack the case of Iyman Faris, a Columbus truck driver who pled guilty two years ago to helping plot Al Qaeda attacks in the United States. Faris told authorities that he began plotting to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge after meeting with Osama bin Laden and senior Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001.

Administration officials have been under immense pressure from members of Congress to make a better case for why the Patriot Act should be renewed and to detail how they believe the law has been successful in preventing terrorist attacks since 9/11. Bush is also expected to talk at length about broad new powers proposed for the FBI and why they are needed. Legislation approved by the Senate Intelligence Committee this week would allow the FBI to subpoena records and issue wiretaps without permission from a judge or jury. That provision has rankled some of the administration's longtime allies, including former GOP representative Bob Barr of Georgia, who says the law is being used to enforce cases that have nothing to do with terrorism. "There's no proof this law has done anything to stop Al Qaeda-style attacks," Barr says. The former lawmaker, along with prominent conservatives Grover Norquist and Paul Weyrich, have been pressing for greater restrictions on the Patriot Act through a campaign group called Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances.