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EXCLUSIVE: AIG chiefs pressed to donate to Dodd

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 30, 2009

EXCLUSIVE:

As Democrats prepared to take control of Congress after the 2006 elections, a top boss at the insurance giant American International Group Inc. told colleagues that Sen. Christopher J. Dodd was seeking re-election donations and he implored company executives and their spouses to give.

The message in the Nov. 17, 2006, e-mail from Joseph Cassano, AIG Financial Products chief executive, was unmistakable: Mr. Dodd was "next in line" to be chairman of the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, which oversees the insurance industry, and he would "have the opportunity to set the committee's agenda on issues critical to the financial services industry.

"Given his seniority in the Senate, he will also play a key role in the Democratic Majority's leadership," Mr. Cassano wrote in the message, obtained by The Washington Times.

Mr. Dodd's campaign quickly hit pay dirt, collecting more than $160,000 from employees and their spouses at the AIG Financial Products division (AIG-FP) in Wilton, Conn., in the days before he took over as the committee chairman in January 2007. Months later, the senator transferred the donations to jump-start his 2008 presidential bid, which later failed.

Now, two years later, Mr. Dodd has emerged as a central figure in the government's decision to let executives at the now-failing AIG collect more than $218 million in bonuses, according to the Connecticut attorney general - even as the company was receiving billions of dollars in assistance from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). He acknowledged that he slipped a provision into legislation in February that authorized the bonuses, but said the Treasury Department asked him to do it.

The decision has generated national outrage and put the Obama administration into the position of trying to collect the bonuses after they were distributed. It also endangers Mr. Dodd's re-election chances in 2010 as his popularity tumbles in his home state.

Despite all the claims that Washington has changed, the tale of Mr. Dodd's lucrative political ties to AIG is a fresh reminder that special interests continue to use donations and fundraising to sow good will with powerful lawmakers like Mr. Dodd.

"The message seems clear: The boss says I want you to support the senator," said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which studies political fundraising and ethics. "And I think the employees got the message."

Representatives for Mr. Dodd did not answer specific questions about AIG's fundraising, but spokesman Bryan DeAngelis said in a statement: "Senator Dodd´s fundraising has always been above board, transparent and in accordance with campaign finance rules.

"As he said [earlier this month], contributions received from any individual who accepted these bonuses from AIG last week will be donated to charity. And last fall, he made the decision to no longer accept contributions from [political action committees] of companies receiving TARP money."

Officials at AIG-FP in Wilton referred inquiries to the firm's New York headquarters, where spokesman Mark Herr said he had been on the job only three weeks and had no information about the e-mail or the campaign contributions to Mr. Dodd.

Mr. Cassano's Washington attorney, F. Joseph Warin, did not return messages left on his voice mail or e-mail.

Mr. Dodd's plight also signals that the actions taken by lawmakers after they receive big political donations are being scrutinized by an increasingly distrustful public. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found Mr. Dodd lagging 43 percent to 42 percent behind former U.S. Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who plans to challenge Mr. Dodd, in a hypothetical race.

"The concern and the question is whether AIG was purchasing kid-glove treatment from their home state senator - from the senator chairing the committee charged with overseeing their industry," Ms. Krumholz said.

Political opponents already are using Mr. Dodd's financial ties to AIG and his role in the bonuses to weaken his political standing heading into re-election.

AIG's employees have been big financial backers of Mr. Dodd. Over his career, Mr. Dodd has collected $238,418 from AIG employees and their spouses, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Mr. Cassano has donated $7,118 to Mr. Dodd's campaigns.

Mr. Cassano's November 2006 e-mail instructed his colleagues on how to make donations to the senator from Connecticut.

"As he considers running for president in 2008, Senator Dodd has asked us for our support with his reelection campaign and we have offered to be supportive," Mr. Cassano wrote.

The employees were told, "If you agree," to write checks for $2,100 from themselves and their spouses and to send them to Mr. Dodd's campaign within four days. They also were to ask the senior members of their management teams to do the same and send copies of their checks to the company.

The Dodd campaign collected $162,100 from AIG-FP employees and their spouses within six weeks of the e-mail, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Federal Election Commission.

Each of the seven AIG-FP executives to whom the Cassano e-mail was sent made two $2,100 contributions to the Dodd campaign - one for the primary and another for the general election campaign. The records also show that five of their wives also contributed $4,200 each to the Dodd campaign. The executive vice presidents are Alan Frost, David Ackert, Douglas L. Poling, Jake DeSantis, Jon Liebergall, Robert Leary and William Kolbert.

Mr. Cassano, who resigned in February after AIG-FP posted losses of $11 billion, followed his own advice. He and his wife gave Mr. Dodd's campaign $4,200 each.

Political fundraising in the workplace is legal, but a request from a boss may be viewed as a requirement, campaign watchdogs said.

"Implicit in this [e-mail] is the presumption that, at best, noncompliance will not be looked up favorably ... at worst, it may have negative consequences on the employees," Ms. Krumholz said.

Mr. Dodd's campaign paid for events at AIG, as well. His Senate campaign recorded paying $400 at AIG Food Services on Dec. 7, 2006, about two weeks after the e-mail was sent. In March 2007, his presidential campaign paid AIG-FP $250 for a room rental fee, according to election commission filings. The payments could have been recorded weeks after the events took place.

Watchdog groups say Mr. Dodd's close association with AIG - over his career, the company's employees have been one of his largest donor bases - raises questions about his and his committee's ability to provide objective oversight. It was the $218 million in bonuses paid by AIG that became the focus of public outrage, igniting a torrent of criticism and congressional hearings in the wake of federal loan packages.

Earlier this month, Mr. Dodd defended the amendment to an economic stimulus bill that exempted bonuses to which companies receiving federal bailout funds previously agreed. He initially denied having any role in crafting the language, but he later said Treasury Department officials pressured him to make the change to protect the government from lawsuits.

Although the AIG-FP headquarters is located in Mr. Dodd's home state and a good number of the bonuses authorized for top company executives went to that office, Mr. Dodd has said he had no idea the amendment would impact the company.

"Let me be clear: I was completely unaware of these AIG bonuses until I learned of them last week," he told CNN last week. "I agreed reluctantly. I was changing the amendment because others were insistent."