Late last summer, I had an interesting conversation with Brad Freeman, a top California Republican who is today one of three co-chairs of the Presidential Inaugural Committee, overseeing the raising of a whopping $40 million in private contributions from top corporations and lobbyists for this week’s events. Freeman, whose private investment company made him rich, is so close to the Bush family that when they moved into the White House in 2001, they gave him their pet cat, Ernie, because they feared his claws would tear up the rugs.
One morning during the Republican National Convention in New York, I reached Freeman in his suite at the Waldorf-Astoria. How did I know where to find him? The day before, I had taken a stroll through the skyboxes high above Madison Square Garden as they were being prepared for the evening festivities, and found a copy of Freeman’s personal schedule for the week that his female companion had apparently left lying on a table.
Freeman and his companion were attending every top-shelf event occurring during the convention–“Apple Martinis” with Representative David Dreier, chairman of the powerful House Rules Committee, at Bowlmor Lanes (an establishment that we now know was quietly propped up by a Palestinian Authority investment fund controlled by Yasir Arafat) ; legal lobbying powerhouse Akin Gump’s event honoring Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman at Bryant Park Grill; a tribute to First Lady Laura Bush at the Marriott Marquis; Senator John and Cindy McCain’s bash for the media at Cipriani.
Not only that, his schedule listed several events that had been left off the RNC’s thirty-two-page master calendar, including a special reception at the Four Seasons with former President Bush for “Rangers, Pioneers & Mavericks” (fundraisers who respectively bundled $200,000, $100,000 or $50,000 in individual donations to the Bush campaign). A page of “miscellaneous information” included personal cell-phone numbers for Karl Rove, Ken Mehlman, Benjamin Ginsberg (a top election lawyer working for the Bush campaign whose advisory work for the Swift Boat Veterans led him to resign from the campaign) and a host of campaign fundraising honchos.
As I had just written, with my colleague Nancy Watzman, a book called Is That a Politician in Your Pocket? Washington on $2 Million a Day, this discovery was pure serendipity. Finally, after documenting all the ways wealthy special interests cash in on lucrative favors from Washington, DC, here was an unrestricted peak at life at the very top of the fundraising pyramid.
Just one-tenth of 1 percent of all Americans gave the maximum individual contribution of $2,000 to a candidate in 2004, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. An even tinier group, a little over 1,000 men and a handful of women, were the super-bundlers for the major presidential candidates of both parties.
Freeman was the top man of one of those power pyramids, having managed Bush’s California money machine in 2000 and 2004. His traveling partners for the Republican National Convention, with whom he was sharing a private jet back to Van Nuys (“Wheels Up from Teterboro, Friday 9:00 am” his schedule read), included Gerald Parsky, an investment banker who has given, with his wife, more than $500,000 to federal candidates since 1999; and Bob Tuttle, an auto dealer who has given more than $135,000 (plus an equivalent amount to California Republicans). If anyone knew how big money worked in politics, it was Brad Freeman.