Donors Turned to Dole for Action His Relationship with Gallo Wines Fueled Campaign Finance Critics

Article excerpt

When the E&J Gallo winery needed some political muscle to ease federal regulations on champagne, the giant California winemaker called on a senator from Kansas for help.

Bob Dole, then the Senate Republican leader, responded by pressuring President George Bush's administration in 1992 to abandon a proposed crackdown on labeling standards and permit Gallo to sell its inexpensive sparkling wines as "Charmat method" champagne, according to interviews and newly obtained documents.

Gallo eventually prevailed, as it often has in Washington over the last decade on issues ranging from tax legislation to trade - usually with Dole's help. Dole's Biggest Backer So, why has Dole, who vigorously represented the interests of Midwestern corn and wheat farmers in his 35 years in Congress, come to the aid of a grape grower in Modesto, Calif.? A spokeswoman for Dole said the former Senate majority leader, who reti red in June to run full time for president, was standing up for what he believes in and acting in the government's best interests. Another explanation could come from federal election records: Since 1986, Ernest Gallo and his family have pumped more money in individual contributions into Dole's political campaigns - $274,000 - than anyone from Kansas or anywhere else. The Gallos also have donated at least $705,000 to Dole's organization, the Dole Foundation, a tax-exempt charitable group that provides job opportunities for disabled people. "This is as garish an example of a politician helping a special interest that I have seen in my 20 years in Washington," said Charles Lewis, author of "The Buying of the President" and director of the nonpartisan Center For Public Integrity. "If this isn't a quid pro quo, what is?" Many Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill provide special favors for their largest financial supporters. But Dole was extraordinarily well-positioned in Congress to deliver for big business. He served as Senate majority leader for four years, as minority leader for eight and as a member and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. Since 1980, Dole has solicited $103.4 million to bankroll his various political pursuits, as well as a charitable foundation and his own conservative think tank. In addition, special interests have contributed corporate jets to fly Dole around 538 times in the last six years. When asked during the first presidential debate how he avoids being influenced by campaign donors, Dole said: "I think it's very difficult. Let's be honest about it. That's why we need campaign finance reform." Dole declined to be interviewed for this story. His campaign spokeswoman, Christina Martin, said Dole had "never been shy about taking on powerful corporate interests. …