By JOE STEPHENS Staff Writer
BOSTON -- Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign received thousands of dollars in illegal contributions last year from workers at a Massachusetts sporting goods company, according to three persons who wrote checks to the campaign.
The company, Aqua-Leisure Industries, is run by a Dole campaign official. And last year he, his workers and their families sent the campaign 40 individual checks totaling $40,000.
Three of those contributors said workers were handed stacks of $100 bills and told to return with personal checks made out to "Dole for President." They reported personally receiving $4,000.
If true, the arrangement circumvented federal limits on contributions and camouflaged the real source of the money.
"I knew it was illegal -- especially when they gave me cash," one contributor said. "You just don't see people with that kind of cash."
In all, five persons claimed to know about the scheme, which allegedly helped turn the company's relatively small work force into one of Dole's largest sources of individual contributions. The allegations are supported by bank records, federal campaign reports and other evidence.
A lawyer for the company, however, said workers received only their usual pay and that no one laundered contributions.
"I can categorically deny those things happened," attorney Richard Stein said. "There were no cash payments to employees."
The company's founder and chairman is Simon Fireman, a national vice chairman of finance for Dole's campaign. He has been a major Republican fund-raiser, a trade adviser to three past presidents and most recently was a director of the U.S. Export-Impor t Bank.
Fireman's office issued a press release last year announcing he planned to "play a key role on the Dole for President committee." Fireman's brother said Dole has known the Massachusetts businessman for "a very long time" and that they are "very good fr iends."
Past and present acquaintances contend Fireman has long sought a new federal appointment, especially as a foreign ambassador.
Dole representative Christina Martin said the campaign was "not aware of the allegations."
"Those individuals with concerns along these lines should address them to the FEC (Federal Election Commission)," she said.
She confirmed that Fireman has raised an undetermined amount for Dole, but added that he does not consider Fireman a close friend.
"This is an individual the senator knows of," she said.
The $40,000 from Aqua-Leisure workers and their families flowed into Dole's coffers between February and September of last year.
During the same period, people affiliated with the company's outside sales representatives contributed an additional $15,000. And Fireman also held a $1,000-a-person fund-raiser in August at his summer home on Cape Cod.
Federal regulations forbid individuals from giving more than $1,000 per election to a candidate's campaign committee and from giving money in the name of another person. They also forbid companies from paying someone to make a contribution.
Violations of campaign finance laws have dogged Dole's past campaigns. Eight years ago, for example, a money-laundering scandal proved a liability during his last presidential bid. An investigation then into Dole's 1986 Senate campaign discovered thousands of dollars in illegal contributions from executives at an Overland Park company. Employees said the company reimbursed them to hide the origin of the money.
The Federal Election Commission did not fault Dole himself in that incident. But it did fine his 1988 presidential campaign committee $100,000 for other violations, including accepting illegal donations from corporations. At the time, it was the larges t campaign fine ever assessed.
Each of the five persons who agreed to discuss the alleged money laundering at Aqua-Leisure asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.
Three of the sources said they learned of the plan directly from Fireman's assistant, who they said passed out the cash. Two others said they learned about the transactions -- and in one case received a handful of $100 bills - - from members of their ow n families.
Campaign records from last year confirm that Aqua-Leisure workers and their relatives directed thousands of dollars into the Dole campaign. Each gift was for $1,000, and as many as 12 individual contributions flowed into the campaign on a single day.
The gifts came not only from top managers, but also from secretaries, a bookkeeper and a warehouse manager. In fact, one worker gave twice the legal limit of $1,000, forcing the campaign to return part of her money.
Taken altogether, Aqua-Leisure workers and their families gave more money to Dole than those at all but a small group of major corporations, most with many times more employees. The Massachusetts company distributes swimming goggles and inflatable pool toys nationwide.
In interviews, at least nine contributors affiliated with Aqua-Leisure denied they were reimbursed. Many others could not be reached for comment or did not return phone calls. Four contributors would neither confirm nor deny they were repaid.
Fireman refused to discuss the money-laundering allegations.
Carol Nichols, his executive assistant and corporate clerk, acknowledged she and Fireman raised funds for Dole. But she said they did not ask Aqua-Leisure workers to contribute their own money.
"This is ridiculous," she said.
How it allegedly worked
Nichols was vague about Fireman's involvement, according to the three persons who said they discussed the transactions with her directly. But the workers said they were aware of Fireman's role in the Dole campaign and assumed he knew about the cash tra nsactions.
All three contributors acknowledged a strong dislike for Fireman and Nichols.
"She specifically said, `Mr. Fireman would like you to contribute to the Dole campaign,' " one contributor recalled. "I kind of balked at it. She said, `You don't have to use your own money. I'll take care of it.' "
A few days passed before the next conversation.
"I was called into (Nichols') office, by her, and she was sitting there with a stack of $100 bills that had to be one or two inches high," the contributor said. "I almost choked. She peeled off twenty $100 bills and put them in an envelope. She said, ` You can write a personal check.'
"I took them home and deposited them in my checking account. I wrote a $1,000 check to Dole on the account, and my (relative) wrote a $1,000 check to Dole on the account."
The contributor assumed the transaction was illegal because it was in cash.
"Jobs aren't that plentiful. So I was not in a position to say, `To hell with you, I'm leaving.' I basically had to conform."
Another worker recounted a similar tale involving Nichols.
"She said, `I'm going to give you this money; deposit it in your account and write a check out to the Dole campaign,' " the contributor recalled. "I did specifically ask if I was the only one, and she said no."
Nichols reportedly selected one of a half-dozen or so bank envelopes on her desk and handed it to the contributor. Inside were ten $100 bills.
"Nothing was done in secret or in private," the contributor said. "It was office gossip for a few days -- `Are you going to do it?'
"We were all hoping (Fireman) would get an appointment and would go away."
A third Aqua-Leisure worker agreed with the accounts.
"It was a reimbursement deal," the worker said. "I knew for sure two others gave."
Bank records reinforce the allegations.
On a Thursday last year, records show, an Aqua-Leisure worker deposited $2,000 in cash into a personal checking account. The deposit was more than twice the size of any other that month, the only one in cash and increased the account's balance almost f ourfold.
The same day, the worker and a family member each wrote a $1,000 personal check to "Dole for President."
The worker recalled hearing Nichols say that Dole would get the checks at an upcoming campaign event. The senator's campaign reported receiving them two weeks later, federal records show, and the checks cleared the bank the next day.
The alleged money-laundering follows a pattern described by yet another contributor linked to Fireman.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, the source said, Nichols supplied cash to pay for contributions to the re-election campaign of President George Bush. The contributor deposited the cash in a personal bank account and wrote a $1,000 check to the c ampaign the next day.
Bank documents support the allegation. And federal records show the Bush campaign received that contribution the same day it collected $1,000 checks from Fireman and company employees.
Nichols, however, said she did not give workers cash for any reason. She said she did not even mail campaign literature to employees at home.
In fact, she said, she had no idea how many of her co-workers gave to Dole. "I haven't approached anybody," she said.
Fireman, reached by telephone, responded with curses and insults but did not answer questions.
"You are not now working with some jerk on the local level," he said. "You are a liar, and I have nothing more to say to you."
Then he hung up.
Current of contributions
At least 14 workers at Aqua-Leisure gave to Dole's campaign -- even though former workers and a business directory say the company has only about 35 employees. Nichols estimated the figure is closer to 80.
In addition to contributions from the workers, 11 of their family members also gave. And in 15 instances, the relatives contributed the same amount, on the same date, as the Aqua-Leisure worker in their family.
No matter who contributed, each gift was for exactly $1,000 -- the legal limit.
That devotion to Dole is striking, given the people involved.
Five contributors said they considered themselves Democrats, were registered Democrats, or favored Bill Clinton for president. Two more said they were Democrats until recently. And a few said they had never before given to a political campaign.
At least one contributor was not registered to vote.
Others said they were unaware so many workers at Aqua-Leisure contributed. Nonetheless, federal records show the money arrived in bunches.
For example, at least $12,000 streamed into the Dole campaign from workers and their families on Feb. 28, 1995. That was less than two weeks after Dole began fund-raising for his White House bid, and during the critical "early money" phase of the campa ign.
And at least $9,000 flowed in on Aug. 8, 1995 -- three days after Fireman held the fund-raiser at his summer home. About $9,000 more arrived that day from people affiliated with the company's outside sales representatives
Thirteen of the contributors gave to a little-known "compliance committee," which pays lawyers and accountants to ensure that Dole's campaign obeys federal law. In effect, those gifts doubled the amount the workers could give under federal regulations.
Despite that loophole, three contributors linked to Aqua-Leisure and its sales representatives still gave too much. The Dole campaign returned at least $3,000 to persons who exceeded the $1,000 limit on gifts to individual campaign committees.
At the top of the Aqua-Leisure corporate chart, Fireman gave the two committees a total of $2,000. His family members and their wives pitched in an additional $10,000.
At the other end of the chart are a secretary, a bookkeeper and a warehouse manager, each of whom gave $1,000 or more.
Their generosity extended only to Dole. Federal records listing contributions of $200 or more show that, among people listed as Aqua-Leisure employees, Fireman alone gave to other federal candidates during the first nine months of last year.
`Not too appealing'
Beverly Baron, a secretary, called herself "basically a Democrat" who was leaning toward Dole but had yet to choose a presidential candidate.
"I'm still open," she stressed. "The choice I have is not too appealing."
When reminded that she and her husband gave Dole $2,000, and asked if she was reimbursed, Block paused.
"I really couldn't say," she finally replied. "I can't say that."
Asked what form the reimbursement may have taken, she paused again.
"I don't know. I don't know what to say for that," she stammered. "I don't know how to answer you. I really just don't feel comfortable saying."
Cynthia Shean, a bookkeeper, said she also considered herself a Democrat and that she probably would vote for Clinton. When told campaign records indicated that she, too, had given to Dole, Shean stressed that Fireman had nothing to do with her contrib utions.
The campaign reported receiving Shean's first check on Aug. 8, the same day it collected eight $1,000 checks from her co-workers and their families. Yet the bookkeeper said she gave in response to a mail solicitation.
"I don't know how I got on the list," she said.
Credit manager Tom Keane said no one asked him to give. Although he considered himself a Democrat until recently, he said he spontaneously sent two checks, for $1,000 each, to Dole's campaign committees.
Keane said he was unaware that anybody else at Aqua-Leisure contributed.
Records show that Dole's campaign received Keane's first contribution on Feb. 28, 1995 -- the same day it received $11,000 from his co-workers and members of their families. Keane's second contribution arrived at Dole's compliance committee on June 28, along with $1,000 checks from Fireman, his wife, his executive assistant and an Aqua-Leisure manager.
None of the company's outside sales representatives said they were reimbursed. Even so, they and their relatives gave $15,000 in contributions in $1,000 increments, often on the same days as Aqua-Leisure employees. And some acknowledged giving, legally , at Fireman's insistence.
Sales representative Gary Dillman, for example, said Fireman sent him a letter suggesting it would be "very advisable" to contribute -- wording that Dillman considered a bit threatening.
"I sure questioned it at the time, believe me," said Dillman, who contributed $1,000 even though he then favored Gen. Colin Powell.
"If Dole is elected, (Fireman) probably would become part of his cabinet," Dillman said. "There has to be a benefit out there somewhere, or why would you do it?"
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