Fred Wertheimer and the Endless Battle with Dark Money
Fred Wertheimer has battled dark money in Washington for 40 years, from Watergate to soft money issue ads to Citizens United v. FEC.
“We’re on the cutting edge of politics,” Dolan told the Washington Post in 1980. “A group like ours,” he once said, “could lie through its teeth, and the candidate it helps stays clean.”
“There are two things that are important in politics. The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.” —Mark Hanna, 19th-century mining tycoon and GOP fundraiser
Bill Liedtke was racing against time. His deadline was a little more than a day away. He’d prepared everything—suitcase stuffed with cash, jet fueled up, pilot standing by. Everything but the Mexican money.
The date was April 5, 1972. Warm afternoon light bathed the windows at Pennzoil Company head quarters in downtown Houston. Liedtke, a former Texas wild-catter who’d risen to be Pennzoil’s president, and Roy Winchester, the firm’s PR man, waited anxiously for $100,000 due to be hand-delivered by a Mexican businessman named José Díaz de León. When it arrived, Liedtke (pronounced LIT-key) would stuff it into the suitcase with the rest of the cash and checks, bringing the total to $700,000. The Nixon campaign wanted the money before Friday, when a new law kicked in requiring that federal campaigns disclose their donors.
Díaz de León finally arrived later that afternoon, emptying a large pouch containing $89,000 in checks and $11,000 in cash onto Liedtke’s desk. The donation was from Robert Allen, president of Gulf Resources and Chemical Company. Allen—fearing his shareholders would discover that he’d given six figures to Nixon—had funneled it through a Mexico City bank to Díaz de León, head of Gulf Resources’ Mexican subsidiary, who carried the loot over the border.
Winchester and another Pennzoil man rushed the suitcase to the Houston airport, where a company jet was waiting on the tarmac. The two men climbed aboard, bound for Washington. They touched down in DC hours later and sped directly to 1701 Pennsylvania Avenue NW—the office of the Committee for the Re-election of the President (CREEP)—across the street from the White House.
It was the last gasp of a two-month fund-raising blitz during which CREEP raked in some $20 million before the new disclosure law took effect. Hugh Sloan, CREEP’s treasurer, later described an “avalanche” of cash pouring into the group’s coffers—all of it secret.
At least it was secret until some of that Mexican money ended up in the bank account of a one-time CIA operative named Bernard Barker, one of the five men whose bungled burglary at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex lit the fuse on the biggest political scandal in modern American history.
Almost 40 years later, mass movements like the Tea Party and Occupy have channeled popular anger at a political system widely seen as backward and corrupt. In the age of the super-PAC, Americans commonly say there’s too much money in politics, that lobbyists have too much power, and that the system is stacked against the average citizen. “Our government,” as one Occupy DC protester put it, “has allowed policy, laws, and justice to be for sale to the highest bidder.”
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