All Things Considered (9:00 PM ET)

Thursday, March 9, 2000

Sam Wyly, Texas Billionaire Who Ran Series Of Attack Ads Against John Mccain


Last week, Texas billionaire Sam Wyly began running television ads that attacked Senator John McCain's environmental record and touted the record of George W. Bush. The attack ads have turned a spotlight on Wyly and on the campaign financing loophole that allows so-called independent expenditures. From Dallas, NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

The television advertisements came at a crucial juncture during last week's Republican primaries. In the key states of California, Ohio and New York, viewers began seeing this commercial. As the narrator begins, John McCain's photograph is superimposed across belching smokestacks, Bush's picture appears superimposed across a green meadow.

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Unidentified Narrator: Last year, John McCain voted against solar and renewable energy. That means more use of coal-burning plants that pollute our air. New York Republicans care about clean air. So does Governor Bush. He led one of the first states in America to clamp down on old coal-burning electric power plants. Bush...

GOODWYN: Across the bottom of the ad were the words 'Paid for by Republicans for Clean Air.' But nobody who was in politics or the media had ever heard of this group, and for good reason. Turns out there was no such organization, not unless you count Dallas billionaire Sam Wyly and his immediate family.

Mr. ROB ALLEN (Media Consultant): Well, he's trying to help voters and all Americans who care about clean air understand the issues.

GOODWYN: Rob Allen(ph) is the Dallas media consultant who crafted the ads for Sam Wyly. Allen claims Wyly wasn't trying to bash McCain, that the Texas businessman simply wanted to inform fellow voters in California, New York and Ohio. But he admits that the Wylys and the Bushes go way back.

Mr. ALLEN: He is a good friend of the governor's. I haven't indicated anything but the Wyly family's long history of supporting Republicans and long history of supporting Governor Bush.

GOODWYN: Sam Wyly and his family have been major contributors to both George Bush and President Bush when he ran for the White House. So when the Bush campaign struggled a bit coming into last Tuesday's crucial primaries, Sam Wyly and his brother Charles were in a position to help the Texas governor out. Craig McDonald is the director of Texans for Public Justice, which tracks campaign contributions in Texas.

Mr. CRAIG McDONALD (Director, Texans for Public Justice): The Wylys have been big supporters of the Bush family for quite some time. Both Charles and Sam Wyly were members of President Bush's Team 100. These are really the kingmakers who put Bush in the Governor's Mansion in Austin, and the Wylys were at the top of that group of kingmakers. They ranked number three.

GOODWYN: When the Wyly commercials first hit the airwaves, McCain complained about the commercials being anonymous. Then when the sponsors turned out to be rich friends of Bush, McCain filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission charging that the ads were illegal campaign contributions. But under the laws governing what are called independent expenditures, Wyly can spend as much money as he wants on these kinds of ads so long as there's no coordination with the Bush campaign. Karen Hughes is Bush's press secretary.

Ms. KAREN HUGHES (Bush Press Secretary): We had no idea. The first we knew, the first Governor Bush or anyone with our campaign organization knew about the ads was when we were called by a reporter.

GOODWYN: These kinds of soft-money expenditures, which can be unlimited in scope, were a target of the campaign finance reforms championed by McCain and opposed by Republican Party regulars. And Bush endorses the party line on this issue. Bush press secretary Karen Hughes.

Ms. HUGHES: He believes individuals have a free speech right to express their opinions. The New York Times editorial page, The Washington Post editorial page, The Dallas Morning News editorial page--they express their opinions. Right now, a lot of people hear about politics through the filter of the news media.

GOODWYN: Last week, millions of voters in New York, California and Ohio heard about McCain and Bush's environmental record through the filter of Dallas billionaire Sam Wyly. Those who know Wyly say that he is an environmentalist and businessman. Tom Smith is the director of Public Citizen, a consumer and environmental watchdog group. During the last Texas legislative session, Wyly helped environmentalists win passage of a bill which mandated that old coal-burning power plants reduce their air pollution. Smith says that Governor Bush wanted the bill to have only voluntary compliance by the utilities.

Mr. TOM SMITH (Director, Public Citizen): But we knew it had to be mandatory or it would never be done. And we needed help, and Sam Wyly had indicated that he had been a major donor to the Bush campaign. And as we were talking about our common interests, he said, 'Well, how can I help clean up these power plants?' And as a result of that conversation, he called the governor on a couple of occasions and went and visited him and asked him for his help in cleaning up these power plants and to make sure it was mandatory.

GOODWYN: Smith says that Bush eventually agreed to the mandatory reductions in pollution only after the Democratically controlled House State Affairs Committee in the Texas Legislature threatened to kill the bill if they weren't in there. Bush generally opposes mandatory environmental regulations. For example, another environmental bill which dealt with air pollution from Texas refineries and chemical companies, and which went through a Republican-controlled committee, was passed and signed into law by Bush with only voluntary cleanup goals.

Tom Smith says that a big problem with Sam Wyly's commercials about Bush's environmental record was that they weren't accurate.

Mr. SMITH: George Bush is no environmentalist, and the way these ads characterized George Bush overstated his accomplishments and make him appear like he's done more for the environment than he really has.

GOODWYN: Smith says that the pollution reduction numbers quoted in the Wyly ad are wrong, inflated by nearly double. And Smith and other public interest advocates charge that that's the problem with these kinds of independent expenditures: There's no accountability.

There is an ironic twist to the whole saga of the Wyly environmental TV ads. Bush press secretary Karen Hughes believes that in the end, the ads weren't all that helpful.

Ms. HUGHES: I think the ads probably hurt us because they brought attention on our opponent's issue of campaign finance reform, and they were widely condemned by newspapers across America.

GOODWYN: The race for president has now become a contest between Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Although the Wyly ads were less than an unqualified success, it is unlikely that campaigns and the voters they want to reach have seen the last of independent expenditures. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

NOAH ADAMS (Host): The relationship between rainfall and pollution, ahead on NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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