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Lawmakers' pet PACs own big money, low profile

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, donated a hefty $316,363 to fellow members of Congress in the past three years.

But Hatch has often said he isn't a millionaire. And he has an annual salary of only $133,600. So how did he donate so much?With other people's money.

Hatch quietly formed a "leadership" political action committee (PAC). It is called the Capitol Committee, a generic name that hasn't drawn much attention back to Hatch. Others donate to it, then Hatch decides where to spread that money.

It may give lobbyists who spend money extra access to Hatch, who in turn may increase his own influence and goodwill among colleagues by helping them win election.

It's all legal. But the questions it raises about who may be buying what influence from whom show why many reformers have long called for banning PACs.

Federal Election Commission data show Hatch's PAC raised $505,210 in the past three years. It donated $316,363 to Senate (and a few House) candidates. It spent another $123,612 on "operational expenses."

(Those operational costs included a salary of $12,360 last year for Candace Dibblee, the wife of Hatch's chief of staff, Robert Dibblee. She arranged fund-raisers and took care of other administrative matters.)

Many donors to the PAC had also given the maximum allowed to Hatch's own campaigns - so the PAC opens up an additional avenue for them to funnel extra money to support Hatch.

He said attracting money from them is "natural because I go to people I know to raise money." He adds that the typical fund-raising event for his PAC is a lunch or breakfast where donors may "ask me questions for an hour or so."

Many of those donors have heavy interest in Hatch's committee assignments. For example, he's on the tax-writing Finance Committee, and some financial industry PACs donating to Hatch's PAC included the New York Stock Exchange PAC, the National Society of Public Accountants PAC, the American Insurance Association PAC, America's Community Bankers PAC and Realtors PAC.

On the donation side, Hatch's PAC gave money to 28 of the current 55 Republican senators in the past three years - including 22 who faced election in 1996.

Hatch's PAC gave the maximum-possible $10,000 to nine (and $20,000 to Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who had two elections in 1995-96). It also gave the maximum to four losing Senate candidates. And he gave the maximum to Reps. Jim Hansen and Chris Cannon, R-Utah (but only $5,000 in 1996 to Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah).

Does that influence his colleagues? Hatch says, "No, I can't name one instance where it has. But I think they are pleased that I care enough to do that (have a PAC to donate to them)."

But it also likely didn't hurt either; for example, when Hatch had to beat back an uprising by conservatives who say he is too easy on President Clinton's judicial nominees. They sought rule changes that would have stripped some of his powers as Judiciary Committee chairman, but he and friends blocked it.

Hatch said, "I do this just out of the goodness in my heart. I have a sense of obligation as one of the Senate leaders to do what I can to help others."

Leaders in both parties have similar PACs - usually formed when they seek party leadership positions or make a run for president. But they can be hard to find - because they have names that have nothing to do with leaders involved (ranging from the Freedom Project to Victory USA).

That's the one complaint Utah Democratic Party Executive Director Todd Taylor had when asked about Hatch's PAC (maybe because others in his party also have them). "This is the first time I've ever heard about it. Does he have others? How would we know? Who else has these PACs?"

Perhaps the first baby step to reform should be requiring clear disclosure of who in Congress has such PACs by forcing lawmakers to attach their names to the PACs. It's easier to know what the Orrin Hatch Leadership PAC is than the Capitol Committee.

That would allow easier scrutiny. Then voters can see which lobbyists give big money to politicians - and can decide if politicians seek and disperse it out of duty and kindness of their hearts or something else.