Watchdog calls practice ‘bipartisan tradition’
Argus Leader Media
By David Montgomery
October 26, 2012
Congressional candidate Matt Varilek accused Rep. Kristi Noem of crossing a line in her campaign fundraising.
“Rep. Noem’s campaign is selling access to her,” Varilek said in a news conference Thursday at his Sioux Falls campaign office.
The charge stemmed from an email apparently sent by the fundraising consultants Noem hires to help her raise money.
The email, by Jon Graham of the Gula Graham Group and released by the Varilek campaign, asks for donations to help Noem’s campaign and then appears to offer an incentive: “Happy to credit any contributions now to a 1-1 coffee or event,” Graham said.
Varilek called that “a remarkably explicit example of offering access to an officeholder in return for contributions.”
Noem’s campaign manager, Tom Erickson, called that charge “absolutely untrue” and said the campaign didn’t authorize Graham’s email.
“Kristi’s had over 800 meetings with South Dakotans in her first term,” Erickson said. “This is just a desperate campaign.”
Graham did not return a message asking for comment.
Erickson accused Varilek of false purity, pointing to donations he has accepted from registered lobbyists.
“Varilek has had all these banking and insurance lobbyists give him money,” Erickson said. “These are people who are possibly trying to gain influence with the Senate Banking Committee.”
The Banking Committee is chaired by Sen. Tim Johnson, Varilek’s former boss and an outspoken supporter of Varilek’s campaign.
David Benson, Varilek’s campaign manager, said Erickson was just trying “to change the subject” rather than defend Noem.
Most members of Congress engage in subtle trading of access for money, said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics.
“Donor rewards programs and offers are a time-honored, bipartisan tradition,” Krumholz said. “Candidates and parties have offered up face time, breakfast, lunch and dinner, ballgames, you name it.”
Krumholz said most donors and politicians assume that’s how “the game is played in Washington.” If the email from Noem’s consultant is accurate, Krumholz said it’s different only in how explicit it is.
“Perhaps some members of Congress have a harder time drumming up contributions without putting a finer point on it of what donors will receive in return,” she said.
Varilek said he’d be different.
“I have not ever sold a meeting, and I will not,” he said.
Asked if Varilek supports any changes to campaign finance laws, he said he does but “as for a particular reform package, I haven’t settled on one.”
Erickson said Varilek was just trying to distract voters from other, more important issues.
“Matt Varilek has built his entire campaign on falsehoods and distractions,” he said. “This is a last-minute attempt to distract the voters.”