White House foreign policy for sale?

The London Times runs a disturbing investigative story today that shows a former Bush bundler and lobbyist selling access to the highest levels of government in return for donations to the future Bush presidential library.  Stephen Payne, who bundled for both of George W Bush’s presidential campaigns and now works at Worldwide Strategic Partners, tells an undercover reporter representing himself as an agent of the former president of Kyrgyzstan that it will take $200 thousand minimum as a contribution to get an audience with Dick Cheney or Condoleezza Rice.  The Times helpfully caught the entire transaction on video:

A lobbyist with close ties to the White House is offering access to key figures in George W Bush’s administration in return for six-figure donations to the private library being set up to commemorate Bush’s presidency.

Stephen Payne, who claims to have raised more than $1m for the president’s Republican party in recent years, said he would arrange meetings with Dick Cheney, the vice-president, Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, and other senior officials in return for a payment of $250,000 (£126,000) towards the library in Texas.

Payne, who has accompanied Bush and Cheney on several foreign trips, also said he would try to secure a meeting with the president himself.

The actual cash requirement, Payne explains, would be much larger — between $600-750 thousand dollars.  The balance would remain with Payne’s firm as a commission for the deal.  In return, the meeting would result in an American statement of somewhat ambiguous support for the former president, presumably Askar Akayev, the Soviet-era holdover chased out of office in a moderately-successful lurch towards democracy.  The message would be that Akayev wasn’t as bad as people think and deserves a second chance.

Regardless of the party in power, this kind of activity is tremendously damaging to the United States.  Our credibility as an actor on behalf of democracy is threatened when these kinds of shakedowns occur.  It’s a flat-out solicitation of a bribe, and Payne should be arrested and prosecuted for it, regardless of whether he acted with the authority to deliver such a meeting or not.  This threatens our standing to pursue democratization efforts everywhere, but especially in neighboring Iran, where those efforts are critical to our national security and the ability to avoid war.

The question is whether Payne had the kind of connections and access to deliver on his solicitation, and whether anyone in the present administration gave him a license to collect donations as a trade-off for donations to the presidential library.  Only a thorough investigation will reveal whether the latter condition existed.   On the first count, Payne certainly has the kind of connections to lend this solicitation a lot of weight in the eyes of those who want to influence our government.  He has raised a lot of money for Bush in his two successful bids for the presidency, making the “Ranger” rank in 2004.  WSP has taken down its page on its partners, but the Google cache shows Payne as highly connected (saved in part here):

Mr. Payne was a vital volunteer member of the Bush 2000 and 2004 campaigns’ Advance operations, in which he spent more than a year traveling with the campaign as a volunteer. Mr. Payne was part of a small team of Bush operatives, including former White House Chief of Staff Andy Card, who coordinated the 2000 campaign’s efforts for the three Presidential debates, also serving as the Lead Advance Representative for the 2004 Vice Presidential debate. Mr. Payne’s national and state fundraising efforts are extensive. In both 2000 and 2004, Mr. Payne was not only one of the top Bush Campaign fundraisers in the nation, but also one of the youngest, earning him select national recognition. Mr. Payne’s fundraising activity includes membership on the Bush for President National Finance Committee, the Republican National Finance Committee, and the 2001 Presidential Inaugural Committee as Deputy Director and Congressional Liaison. Additionally, Mr. Payne served as a fundraiser and statewide Vice-Chairman for Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 2002 campaign, as a Harris County Co-Chair for Perry’s 1998 Lieutenant Governor race and as a statewide Vice-Chairman for Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s re-election campaigns in 2000 and 2006.

Many of us on the Right have loudly complained about the corruption in the Clinton administration that led to the pardon for Marc Rich, and rightly so.  His estranged wife paid $450,000 to the Clinton Library fund, and Bill Clinton pardoned Rich in the last hours of his presidency.  This has even been an issue in this particular presidential campaign, as one of the men responsible for bypassing Department of Justice protocols in securing the pardon now serves as a senior adviser to Barack Obama on the VP vetting committee and on national security: Eric Holder.   In that case, the payoff cycle was complete; in this case, only the initial part of it has been exposed, but both are exactly the same kind of corruption.

Is it possible that Payne was just blowing smoke to gain a $500,000 payday for his firm?  Sure, but that’s still fraud, and it could also make it a violation of the Logan Act.  It’s hard to imagine why someone with Payne’s connections would take that kind of risk without some sense that he had enough authority to avoid those possibilities, though.  This deserves a thorough investigation, one that should be supported by all Americans.

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