'Volunteer' in politics?

Posted: Jan 14, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- Marc Racicot, the former governor of Montana, and his White House sponsors have solved more than half of their ethical problem. They belatedly abandoned the absurd idea of the Republican Party's national chairman simultaneously functioning as a registered federal lobbyist. But Racicot intends to stay on the lobbying firm's payroll while serving as a dollar-a-year "volunteer" for the Republican National Committee (RNC). It is difficult to find any Republican outside the White House who endorses this arrangement. "Would you let a volunteer run your office?" asked a prominent Republican. State party chairmen want presidential political operative Karl Rove to re-examine a situation that they say never would be permitted in their own states. Racicot, whose long career of public service in Montana was unblemished, is not at fault for appearing blind to ethics. During an interview in the national chairman's Capitol Hill office that he soon will occupy, he seemed a little bewildered. He deserved more guidance from President Bush's staff than a cavalier attitude toward conflicts of interest. When asked by the president to be national chairman, Racicot told me, he accepted with the caveat that he would fulfill a two-year contract as a salaried lawyer-lobbyist for the Houston-based firm of Bracewell & Patterson. He currently is registered to lobby for six clients, including the bankrupt Enron Corp. White House sources had said he would register for new clients that both Racicot and the White House expected him to take on. By last week, it was clear this would not stand. A White House meeting Monday determined that Racicot must forego lobbying -- and he did so Wednesday. "I've gone through a re-examination," Racicot told me. "Perhaps in my lack of exposure and with the speed in which we moved, I didn't dissect this as far as I should have." Once elected by the RNC this weekend in Austin, he said, he will void his lobbyist registrations. But what, then, will he do for Bracewell & Patterson? That question is being asked by Terence McAuliffe, the ethically challenged Democratic national chairman. RNC spokeswoman Mindy Tucker has been quoted as saying Racicot might give "strategic advice," but Racicot told me "there are some things which I think I can continue to do ... for instance, contracts between people, or I have helped people in public hearings in Montana." Racicot said nobody has raised objections to him serving as a volunteer, though the RNC's rules a generation ago were changed to require a full-time, paid chairman. However, three former national chairmen and several state chairmen privately expressed astonishment over Racicot's dollar-a-year arrangement. An added complication is Racicot's third hat: his current assignment as the president's "special envoy" to resolve the long-standing U.S.-Canadian dispute over timber imports. Canadian interests grumble that Racicot as Republican chairman would solicit money from grateful American timber companies after reaching a settlement. "To be honest with you," said Racicot, "I had not thought about that." The ethical escape route for Racicot would be to devote himself exclusively to his party duties. That would mean giving up his Bracewell & Patterson salary for his year or more at the RNC. Its amount is "a matter of individual privacy," he told me, but Washington lobbyists guess he is getting closer to $700,000 a year than $1 million. As governor, Racicot listed his number in the Helena telephone book and drove himself to work. He and his wife now live in a suburban Virginia apartment, and he takes the subway to work in Washington. He indicated to me that he rejected Bush's pleas to run for the Senate this year, not because of money but because he lacked "the fire in my belly" for a seven-year commitment. Could Racicot make do for a year or two at the RNC chairman's $150,000 salary? "It's more than I ever made, about 50 percent more," he replied. "None of this has anything to do with compensation." That points the way for the GOP to gain an attractive new advocate, freed of remaining ethical entanglements. It's up to the White House, and prominent Republicans hope the president and his advisers will appreciate this before the RNC meets in Austin.