What was the campaign finance part of Watergate?

It was the citizens group Common Cause that first made that part of the Watergate scandal public. The newly organized group had been active for months before the break-in, taking maximum advantage of the stronger disclosure requirements in the 1971 FECA. Candidates had to file in their states and in Washington, D.C., and the law required the reports be made available for public inspection. But making reports available for inspection in state and federal government offices did not guarantee that the data in them would get to the public at large.7

Getting that data out to the public was what Common Cause wanted to do. It doubted the new law would be enforced any more vigorously than the old one had been, so it decided to take matters into its own hands. Recruiting hundreds of volunteers across the country, the group compiled the data in state and national reports and released it to the press.8

But the volunteers soon discovered that CRP had not reported all the required data, and Common Cause had to go to court to get it. The issue in the case was whether the disclosure requirements in the old Federal Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) still applied in the weeks before the new requirements in the FECA took effect on April 7, 1972.

Both parties had begun fundraising long before the FECA went into effect, which meant they had to comply with both old and new disclosure laws. The FCPA remained in effect through April 6, but the last reporting date under the old law was in February, which put the weeks until April 7 in a gray area. Common Cause asked all campaign committees to report all contributions made in the weeks between the two dates. The CRP refused, and Common Cause sued. The CRP agreed to a partial disclosure in the last days of the campaign, so as to avoid a trial before Election Day. But it resisted a court order to make a full disclosure, and it did not release all of the names until July 1973.9

Two of the names grabbed the public's attention: oil and banking heir Richard Mellon Scaife, who gave $1 million, and insurance mogul W. Clement Stone, who gave $2 million. Testimony before the Watergate Committee revealed that the CRP had raised more than $11 million in the weeks before April 7, soliciting large contributions with the promise of anonymity. Some of the contributions the CRP kept secret were later revealed to have been illegal corporate gifts. The biggest of these were $100,000 contributions from the Gulf, Phillips, and Ashland oil companies, whose executives later testified before the Watergate Committee.10

As the Watergate Committee learned more about the financing of President Nixon's campaign, the public grew more interested: more than one-fourth of all congressional constituent mail during and after the hearings was about campaign finance, more than on any other issue. After lengthy debates, Congress passed the most comprehensive package of campaign finance reforms ever enacted. Two months after taking the oath of office, President Ford signed the new reforms into law.11

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