- The Washington Times - Monday, April 12, 2010

UPDATED:

NEW ORLEANS | Texas Gov. Rick Perry brought them to their feet, stamping and hollering their affection with at least the same level of enthusiasm as — some said more than — they did former vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

The two potential 2012 GOP presidential hopefuls were part of a galaxy of Republican stars who addressed a record audience of 3,500 activists attending the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, a private non-party event hosted by Louisiana GOP Chairman Roger Villere — considered a shoo-in for his state’s lieutenant governor post in November.

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele tried to couple his major-donors event with the SRLC meeting, but ran into problems relating to the turmoil over a topless-club visit and other charges of financial sloppiness at the RNC.

Few wealthy potential contributors to the RNC major-donors event showed up. Worse, some of his party’s best-known headliners declined his invitation to address his RNC fundraising events on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at the Windsor Court Hotel, within easy walking distance of the Hilton Riverside Hotel, where the SRLC was holding its events.

Hardly any high-profile Republicans at the SRLC, including Mr. Villere, were seen anywhere near Mr. Steele whenever photographers were in the vicinity. One senior GOP official was heard to comment to another, “You never know when a picture with Steele will come back to haunt you.”

Those who turned down Mr. Steele’s invitations included Mr. Perry, Mrs. Palin, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.

Of the two other SRLC invitees, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty sent a video greeting instead, and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney had earlier declined because of what he said was a scheduling conflict.

Major donors’ contributions are crucial because the RNC has to spend anywhere from effectively zero (a telephone call) to 30 cents (a donors’ event) to raise each dollar from them, while each small-dollar contributions from direct-mail solicitation, phone banks and other means cost from 50 to 70 cents to raise.

At least one high-dollar event Mr. Steele had scheduled for New Orleans had to be canceled for lack of interest, Republican officials said. By the time Mr. Steele took the podium as the SRLC’s windup speaker Saturday, the Hilton ballroom audience had thinned out considerably.

“I’m the first here to admit that I’ve made mistakes, and it’s been incumbent on me to take responsibility to shoulder that burden, make the necessary changes and move on,” Mr. Steele said, drawing a standing ovation from the half-full room.

In his first public speech since the story of the RNC check to reimburse a bondage-club visit surfaced, Mr. Steele, who was not at the event, did not address the specifics, but said that poor Democratic polling suggesting a Republican victory in November means “the liberal media are looking for any possible alternative narrative… . They are looking for those distractions, and Lord knows I’ve provided a few.”

Mr. Steele has been under pressure for some time to fire his embattled finance director, Rob Bickhart, who has been accused by several Republican officials of sloppy bookkeeping and fiduciary negligence.

RNC Treasurer Randy Pullen told The Washington Times that he had for some time been personally urging Mr. Steele to fire Mr. Bickhart.

Mr. Pullen said he had a good meeting with Mr. Steele on Thursday evening with the chairman saying he will institute more-stringent financial procedures. But Mr. Pullen did not ask Mr. Steele to fire Mr. Bickhart because, he told The Times, he had heard that Mr. Steele would eventually strip Mr. Bickhart of his “full-time” finance director’s post and rehire him as a consultant.

“I was aware that he had said Bickhart was going to be terminated sometime in the future,” Mr. Pullen said.

Doug Heye, RNC communications director, said claims of any move by Mr. Steele to dismiss Mr. Bickhart were mere “hearsay.”

But the RNC’s top donors may force a move.

Mr. Pullen said he met with the “every one of the seven or eight major donors who showed up here” and he said all of them mentioned the $2,000 Los Angeles sex-club expenditure reimbursement.

Mr. Heye also denied there was any snubbing of Mr. Steele, telling The Times that “we had donors from our Majority Fund, President’s Club, Chairman’s Advisory Board, and Team 100 present in New Orleans and at our events.

“By example, more than 50 major donors attended our Saturday breakfast with Gov. Perry, Rep. [Bill] Cassidy and Sen. [Rick] Santorum. The RNC raised more than $400,000 from events surrounding the SRLC,” he said.

There is also a dispute brewing within the RNC, growing out of the topless-club spending, over whether Mr. Bickhart has given RNC employees permission to sign committee checks with his name.

According to Mr. Pullen, the RNC check for nearly $2,000 was signed with Mr. Bickhart’s name, but actually had been “forged” with his permission by an RNC employee. The check actually was made out not to the since-fired employee, but to her friend who picked up the entertainment tab at the topless club and was not even an RNC employee.

Mr. Pullen, the RNC treasurer, told The Times that while Mr. Bickhart has denied giving any employee permission to sign reimbursement requests with his name, he intends himself to get to the bottom of the question.

Mr. Pullen said that when he returns to Washington this week he will ask RNC employees, one by one, whether Mr. Bickhart had even given specific or blanket permission to sign his name and whether each employee had ever signed Mr. Bickhart’s name to a reimbursement request or check.

When asked by The Times to comment on the check-signing issue, Mr. Heye did not specifically deny it, but did “recommend caution here.”

“Forgery is a serious accusation, one with potential legal implications (including libel),” he said.

Mr. Pullen also told The Times that Mr. Bickhart shows up at RNC headquarters only two or three days a week, exercises little or no financial control and gets paid “well over” a half-million dollars, more than twice the $223,500 in salary Mr. Steele receives as chairman.

Both men get unlimited travel and other expenses, but Mr. Bickhart was running up expense account reimbursements so over the top that the RNC yanked Mr. Bickhart’s American Express card.

But Mr. Heye denied that claim, saying “no one at the RNC has unlimited expenses, nor has a card been yanked.”

With an ongoing move afoot among some members to oust Mr. Steele in the hope of repairing the RNC’s damaged image in time to raise sufficient funds — $60 million or so — needed to help House and Senate candidates in the November elections, the Steele team has fought back, with Mr. Steele accusing critics of racism and his allies circulated a letter asking members to pledge support.

At last count, 58 of the RNC’s 168 member had signed the letter, thus appearing to ensure that any motion to oust him would fall short of the supermajority required. For members and party elders who think his remaining as chairman will do more damage than ousting him, a voluntary and graceful exit on his own appears to be the only option — unless more gaffes take place under his stewardship that are so egregious that some of those 58 signers say enough is enough.

Mr. Pullen was one of the 110 members who refused to sign the letter of support for Mr. Steele.

“I support the RNC as an institution, but I don’t know why anybody has to sign a letter” like that, Mr. Pullen told The Times.

Calls for Mr. Steele’s resignation had grown by Thursday when North Carolina GOP Chairman Tom Fetzer, who has been a staunch Steele supporter, wrote him saying, “I have prayed for you and hurt with you these last few weeks. I thank you for the passion you have brought to the job of leading our party, which is one of the reasons I have been a strong supporter of you during my tenure as chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party.”

“The point is to deal with the reality of a situation that is becoming increasingly untenable,” Mr. Fetzer wrote. “Without going into a lot of detail about the situation we find ourselves in, I offer my personal opinion that the best way for you to deal with the reality of the situation is to tender your resignation. I neither arrived at this conclusion lightly nor derive any pleasure from articulating it to you.”

Mr. Steele and the RNC’s spending and fundraising problems are paramount topics among Republicans who began gathering in New Orleans for the privately financed Southern Republican Leadership Conference, which is not an RNC or state-party event.

E-mails from members have been circulating among attendees calling for Mr. Steele to step down for the good of the party whose candidates for Congress normally rely on RNC donations to augment funds provided by the GOP House and Senate campaign committees. But the RNC has spent more than it has raised since Mr. Steele became chairman in January 2009.

“We would like to see Chairman Steele succeed, but there is a lot of [RNC] members coming here to New Orleans telling me about their concern over the way things are going at the national committee,” Mr. Villere said.

Mr. Steele’s statement last week that Republicans who criticize him and President Obama are motivated at least in part by racial considerations appears to be hurting the RNC with potential grass-roots allies on the right.

“I do not like the reports of Steele trying to use the ‘race card’ as a defense mechanism,” Waco, Texas, “tea party” organizer Toby Marie Walker said Thursday. “By stating that he falls into a different ‘margin of error’ because he is black is utterly ridiculous, he shouldn’t use his race as a defense any more than I should use being a woman if I were in his shoes.”

Mrs. Walker, echoing the concerns of many conservatives, added that the recent outrage wasn’t about race but “donor money being used for purposes that do not reflect the family values the RNC [supports].”

Mr. Barbour said in a CNN interview on Sunday that Mr. Steele was wrong to say that race motivated his critics, saying “in that job, people are judged by results.”

But Mr. Barbour, who was national chairman in the early 1990s, declined to criticize Mr. Steele, saying “I do think it’s not right for a former chairman to critique his successors. I just don’t think that’s something that I ought to do. I kind of feel the same way President Reagan was about future presidents.”

Earlier versions of this article incorrectly named well-known conservatives who turned down invitations from Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele last weekend. Rep. Ron Paul, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre and Family Research Council President Tony Perkins should not have been listed among the numerous officials who had turned down invitations to speak at some fundraising events in New Orleans.

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