Saturday :: Jan 10, 2004

Meanwhile, Back in the Secured Homeland, ... Part 1

by pessimist

Now that Saturnalia, er, Christmas has ended, lots of people holding slips of promissory notes signed by you are beginning to hold out their hands toward you - horizontally. They want their legal reimbursement, as you agreed to provide at a later date, which is now. You need not feel so all alone - LOTS of paper debt is owned!


Americans are carrying more debt then ever before, and are behind payments in record numbers, according to figures released yesterday. In October 2003, consumer debt hit a record $1.98 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve. That's about $18,700 in debt per household, which includes credit cards and car loans, but not mortgages. Meanwhile, in the third quarter of last year, 4.09 percent of credit card payments were past due, also a record high, according to the American Bankers Association. The nation's credit card debt hit $735 billion during that period, or about $7,000 per household.

Analysts worry that strong spending, which helped the economy rebound last year, will drag consumers down later. The government noted that the nation's saving rate dropped to 2 percent of after-tax earnings in the first half of 2003, making it more difficult for individuals to deal with financial emergencies. Already, the high debt load has increased the number of personal bankruptcies. Some analysts are expecting another record year when the 2003 numbers are compiled; in 2002, consumer bankruptcies hit a record high of 1.54 million.

OK, you want to pay off your debts, but discover that this frigid winter air made your gas bill go up. But when you got there, the wallet was bare, and so your poor creditor got none - until he went to court to attach your assets.

Local bankruptcies at new high

Bankruptcies set an all-time high in the area in 2003 with 5,210 new cases filed in the Rochester division of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s Western New York district. That was 2.35 percent more than the 5,090 petitions filed in 2002. But the increase here was miniscule compared with Buffalo, where filings were up a whopping 17.8 percent. "The numbers in Rochester are creeping up, but Buffalo’s at an alarming rate," said Paul Warren, clerk of the court.

The number of Chapter 7 filings here jumped 1.77 percent to 3,897. Chapter 13 filings rose 4.5 percent to 1,292. Chapter 11 filings were down 21.7 percent to 18.

Chapter 13 petitions in Buffalo skyrocketed 32 percent last year. Under a Chapter 13 bankruptcy, a repayment plan is set up for individuals with regular incomes. The debtor keeps his or her property and makes payments to a trustee out of future income to pay creditors over time. Under Chapter 7, an individual or business’s assets are liquidated. Under Chapter 11, a business or partnership reorganizes while its assets are protected.

The rise in new filings in Rochester was slightly behind the 2.6 percent increase from 2001 to 2002. "But the trouble with the statistics in this area is that they are cumulative," said Judge John C. Ninfo II, who heads the Rochester division.Since 1994, filings nationally are up 98 percent, Ninfo said. Ninfo has long crusaded against high credit card debt and is running a program to educate young people against the dangers of buying on credit. He believes that credit cards bear a large responsibility for the rapid rise in bankruptcies. The judge said he recently heard a bankruptcy petition from a couple with $80,000 in credit card debt. "And the wife is an accountant at a local company," Ninfo said. "I said to her, ‘This is really shocking to me because I would have thought that you of all people would have known better.’ Her response was very honest and candid: ‘I got caught up in it just like everyone else.’"

Now that you did your holiday celebration, you went downtown to look for a job. You didn't find one, so you went to the unemployment office to hang out.

New Claims for Unemployment Benefits Rise

New claims for unemployment benefits increased last week following three straight weeks of declines, the Labor Department said. New applications filed for unemployment insurance rose to 353,000, an increase of 14,000 for the week ending Jan. 3. That compared to 339,000 new applications in the previous week, when claims were at their lowest level since President Bush's inauguration day, Jan. 20, 2001. Since President Bush took office, the economy has lost 2.3 million jobs, a development that Democrats hope to use against him as he seeks re-election in November. The Bush administration contends that stronger economic growth will eventually lead to more meaningful job creation on a sustained basis.

Economists said last week's rise in claims probably was because of the holidays, including less time for people to file for unemployment benefits the week of Christmas and layoffs from temporary holiday jobs that ended. The report came on the eve of the government's report Friday on the overall civilian unemployment rate for December. The rate currently stands at 5.9 percent — down from a high this summer of 6.4 percent. Analysts expect it to hold steady or bump up slightly in December. The more stable four-week moving average of claims, which smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, fell 5,500 to 350,250 last week. That was the lowest level since Feb. 3, 2001.

Despite last week's rise, claims have remained below 400,000 for 14 consecutive weeks, which economists view as a sign that the fragile jobs market appears to be turning a crucial corner. In the last recession, job growth began surging once weekly unemployment claims had fallen to around 350,000, said economist Ken Mayland, president of ClearView Economics. He expects the same this time around, with strong jobs numbers appearing in the early spring. "Get ready, buckle up, because I think that is a good model for thinking about the current situation," Mayland said. "We are right at about that level now, and I expect payroll growth to really ramp up." U.S. companies have added just 328,000 new jobs in the past four months, and analysts have been looking for stronger growth. Mayland said he predicts that companies added about 135,000 new jobs last month.

In Thursday's report, 32 states and territories reported an increase in initial jobless claims for the week of Dec. 27, and 21 reported an increase. Michigan had the biggest increase, a gain of 20,583 that it attributed to layoffs in the automobile and transportation-equipment industries. Missouri reported the biggest decline, with claims falling by 2,566 because of fewer layoffs in the construction and service industries.

"Is there no hope?" you ask. There were SOME new jobs created, but we hear the competition is pretty tough!

Unemployment Rate Falls; Few Jobs Added

The nation's unemployment rate dropped to 5.7 percent in December to the lowest level in 14 months, but employers finished the year without many help wanted signs for the holidays, adding just 1,000 new jobs. The 0.2 percentage point drop in the jobless rate occurred because fewer people were looking for work, the Labor Department said Friday. More than 300,000 people gave up their search for jobs and dropped out of the pool of available workers. "The rate is going down, but it is going down for the wrong reasons," said Bill Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Financial Services, noting that it fell not because people were finding work. "That doesn't make you feel really good about the state of the jobs market." The weak report prompted investors to sell off stocks in early trading on Wall Street.

President Bush seized on the lower jobless rate as reason to be optimistic about the economy. "Unemployment dropped today to 5.7 percent . That's not good enough — we want more people still working," the president told a gathering of women small business owners at the Commerce Department . "But nevertheless, it is a positive sign that the economy is getting better." The Bush administration contends that stronger economic growth — helped by the president's three tax cuts — will eventually lead to more meaningful job creation on a sustained basis. Commerce Secretary Don Evans said Friday's report reinforces the need for Congress to "make tax relief permanent and act with urgency on the rest of President Bush's jobs and growth agenda." For that sustained growth, analysts are looking for monthly payroll gains of 200,000 to 300,000 — a mark the economy is far from reaching. December marked the fifth consecutive month of payroll gains, however slight.

Weak holiday hiring by retailers was to blame for holding back job gains. Analysts were surprised by the anemic job growth because they expecting companies to add 100,000 to 150,000 jobs to their payrolls last month. But the net gain was just 1,000 jobs — which is "quite shocking," Cheney said. "I would certainly have not expected anything resembling that."

Employment in the nation's stores, malls and even gas stations dropped by 38,000, the report said, and manufacturing continued a 41-month slide by losing 26,000 jobs. The nation's factories have been on life support, and the sector shed about a half million jobs in 2003. The economy has lost about 2.3 million jobs since Bush took office, a statistic that Democrats hope to use against Bush as he seeks re-election. "Rather than focusing on putting a person on the moon, I think the Bush administration should focus on putting people back to work," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., a former Clinton White House aide, citing Bush's planned announcement next week of goals of sending Americans to Mars and establishing a permanent human presence on the moon.

Other areas of the economy are surging, but the jobs market has been a weak link in the recovery. To remain competitive in the global economy and out of concern that economic improvements wouldn't last, companies have been hesitant to take on added costs of hiring new full-time workers. Instead, they have been working their employees longer and harder. Hence, the productivity of American workers has been at high levels in recent months. But with all the positive signs in the rest of the economy, economists have been expecting the jobs market to improve. "Most people were expecting it to be a reality by this stage, so it's a little alarming we're still relying on faith," Cheney said.

Friday's report showed that employers have added just 277,000 new jobs since July, cutting earlier estimates of growth in October and November.
Some areas of the economy added jobs last month. Employment continued to rise in the services sector in temporary employment services, education and health care. Construction companies also added to their payrolls. But the cuts outweighed any gains. Analysts were concerned about the lack of employment growth for retailers in their most important month of the year. A rise in Internet shopping could partially explain why fewer stores were hiring, economists said. The federal and state governments also reduced their payrolls last month, as did banks and mortgage companies, reflecting the uptick in mortgage interest rates.

Well, if you can't find someone to hire you, why not hire yourself? Be an entrepreneur, like Dubya! Look how rich he got to be working for himself! Maybe you can get a loan from the government?

Feds Suspend Small Business Loan Program

Small businesses will have their access to capital crimped by a government move suspending the biggest loan program for them as it runs short of money, a Democratic lawmaker said Wednesday. The move is "the Bush administration's latest attempts to gut this critical program," said Rep. Nydia Velazquez of New York, senior Democrat on the House Small Business Committee. "As the economy struggles to create jobs, now is not the time to cut off small businesses from access to capital."

The Small Business Administration, which administers the program of loan guarantees intended to help businesses that can't qualify for regular loans from banks, blames the holdup on Congress. Lawmakers have not passed a $373 billion spending bill for the budget year that started Oct. 1, which includes money for the SBA. Like most federal agencies, the SBA has been functioning under a temporary authority at 2002 spending levels. Businesses' loan requests coming into the agency have reached record levels - some $45 million a day - far exceeding the money available, SBA spokeswoman Sue Hensley said. "Unfortunately, it's hindering us," she said. "We need to get a budget soon."

The strong loan demand led the agency last week to cap the maximum loan it would guarantee through the program at $750,000, down from $2 million.
Similar disputes over the loan program between lawmakers and the White House have occurred before, and are often politically colored. In May 1997, for example, Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., then chairman of the Senate Small Business Committee, accused the SBA in the Clinton administration of failing to inform Congress that the program was running out of money.

OK, so that proved not to be such a good idea. There's always Wal-Mart! Que? No habla Espanol?

Down this dead-end road before

Welcome to the Wal-Mart Bracero Program. That's what some Latino leaders are calling President Bush's startling plan to create a massive new government-sanctioned guest worker program for more than 8 million immigrants in the country illegally. Among the illegal population, Hispanics are the biggest group. It's no secret that Bush needs a bigger share of the Hispanic vote this year to assure his reelection. [sic]

Two years ago, one of his senior advisers concluded that if Bush gets the same percentage of the vote among all ethnic and racial groups this November that he received against Al Gore in 2000, he will lose the White House by 3 million votes. The reason is simple. Hispanics, who usually vote Democratic, are the fastest-growing part of the electorate. Bush got 35% of the Hispanic vote against Gore. He needs at least 40% to 45% to win this time. So in the first week of the election year, Bush turned immigration into a national issue by dangling the carrot of legal status before millions of immigrants. But reforming our nation's arcane and unwieldly immigration system is an enormous task, and Bush's proposal lacked specifics.

Latinos have seen this carrot before.

At the turn of the century, U.S. companies recruited hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to work in industry throughout the West and the Midwest. But whenever the economy soured, the government rounded up the migrants and deported them by the trainloads. Then, during World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt launched the infamous Bracero Program, another guest worker scheme to recruit Mexicans for U.S. industry. It led to such terrible abuses of the migrants that President Lyndon Johnson ended it in 1965.

"This is a modern-day rewrite of the 1940s Bracero Program that tore families apart and stripped laborers of their earnings and their future," said Rep. Ciro Rodriguez (D-Tex.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

Bush is right that the current immigration system has failed. But his solution only creates a "permanent legal underclass" of low-paid workers, said AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. Employers could quickly hire temporary foreign workers after certifying to the government that they couldn't find U.S. citizens to fill their vacancies. "Our laws should allow willing workers to enter our country and fill jobs that Americans are not filling," Bush said in his speech yesterday. Of course, the best way to get an American worker to refuse a job is to offer a wage so low that only a desperate immigrant would take it.

Not too long ago, federal agents raided several Wal-Mart stores. They charged the company, the nation's largest retailer, with employing hundreds of illegal immigrants as maintenance workers. Under Bush's proposal, low-wage companies like Wal-Mart won't just use guest workers as night-shift cleaners. They'll employ them as sales and shipping clerks, too.

Bush's immigration reform is so full of holes that it doesn't have a prayer in Congress. No matter. The President will spend the next few months telling Latino voters how hard he tried to help the nation's immigrants. And some may even vote for him.

And Bush will be GLAD to take their votes! But not all those who cross our borders to get rich working for Wal-Mart speak Spanish!

Suit aims to aid Czech Wal-Mart workers
The Prague Post

Thousands of Czechs are lured to the United States each year in the pursuit of Western-style pay. Many end up laboring seven days a week, 365 days a year, without overtime, benefits or -- sometimes -- any pay at all. Now an American attorney wants to give Czech workers a chance to fight back against the global retail giant that he claims knowingly takes advantage of illegal immigrants.

Using a U.S. law originally designed to put Mafia bosses behind bars, New York lawyer James Linsey filed a class-action lawsuit Nov. 10 in U.S. Federal District Court in New Jersey on behalf of Czech citizens and others allegedly employed illegally and underpaid by Wal-Mart. "Wal-Mart knows this is going on. ... It is one step away from slavery." James Linsey, lawyer

Linsey, who traveled to Prague in the first week of January to interview potential clients, accuses the retail chain of conspiring with cleaning contractors to knowingly hire undocumented workers as janitors for its 3,500 U.S. stores, thereby avoiding wage and benefits laws. By doing so, Linsey says, the company violated the 1970 U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a law designed to target organized crime.

The civil suit parallels, and was triggered by, a U.S. criminal case against Wal-Mart. On Oct. 23, federal agents raided 61 stores across the United States, arresting more than 250 illegal immigrants, including many from the Czech Republic. Wal-Mart has yet to file a reply to the civil class action. David Murray, Wal-Mart's Washington, D.C., attorney, did not return a call for comment. Wal-Mart in the past has denied any wrongdoing.

If successful, Linsey's case on behalf of workers from several countries could have drastic ramifications for how American corporations do business and could cost the world's largest company millions in back pay and punitive damages. The case could also serve to put a dent in what is thought to be a highly organized trade in illegal workers in the Czech Republic. "At first blush people might think it's Mexicans," Linsey said of the illegal workers employed by Wal-Mart. "The majority are from Eastern European nations."

Linsey's suit hinges on proving what he and federal prosecutors have described as a "layering" structure, by which a company can distance itself from the hiring of illegal workers: Because they contracted out cleaning work, Linsey said, Wal-Mart management can deny they knew they were hiring illegal immigrants. "The key to racketeering is credible deniability," he said. "The people at the top can say, 'I didn't know.'"

Linsey noted that the illegal workers, many of whom did not speak English, were under the direct supervision of Wal-Mart personnel. "Wal-Mart is aware or should reasonably have known of the systematic violation of immigration law by the contractor defendants," he wrote in his filing to the court. He added that Wal-Mart essentially functioned as a joint employer, checking work, issuing orders and implementing standards for the janitorial crews. "Wal-Mart knows this is going on," he said. "It's pandemic throughout the Wal-Mart system."

Linsey said another problem with the layering structure is it leaves little money left over to pay the workers. "What happens with the layering structure is everyone takes their cut. By the time [that happens] there is no money to pay the people." Because most workers pay an agency between $1,000 and $3,000 (26,000 and 78,000 Kc) for the chance to work in the United States, he said, many don't get paid at all. "It is one step away from slavery," Linsey said. "In some instances it is slavery."

The high number of Czechs allegedly working illegally for Wal-Mart and other U.S. companies has not been lost on the Czech Embassy in Washington, D.C., which has warned people not to take illegal employment in America. It is also why Linsey chose Prague as his first stop to seek out potential claimants. Since he landed in the city on New Year's Eve, Linsey said, several potential defendants have contacted him. He said he expects to end up representing 20 or more former Wal-Mart workers living here. He added that the potential payback could be in the tens of thousands of dollars. "We are seeking clients not just in the Czech Republic but also Czech citizens in the United States," Linsey said. "People are starting to surface."

And not all of these surfacees are here to work for Wal-Mart, according to the Sheriff of Peoria County, Illinois!

Peoria Journal-Star reports Peoria/Champaign hotbeds for terrorist activity

PEORIA -- Peoria Journal-Star's Phil Luciano reported yesterday, "Peoria and Champaign are part of a seven-city 'circuit' that moves and disperses terrorists to specific sites across the nation," according to Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy. McCoy received this information at an FBI conference held recently in Springfield.

According to the PJ-S, McCoy was told by the agent after the seminar a "circuit" tied to Al-Quaida runs from the West to East coasts. The agent reportedly explained to McCoy, "terrorists enter the United States in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then move to Phoenix, then Denver. From there, some head to Peoria and Champaign. Some terrorists remain in those communities, while others head on to New York City."

During his seminar, the FBI agent mentioned Peoria a handful of times in reference to [Ali Saleh Kahlah] al-Marri, the Bradley University graduate student arrested by the FBI in late 2001 at the West Peoria apartment he shared with his family. Federal authorities allege the Qatari national had direct ties to Osama bin Laden, Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and alleged Sept. 11 money man Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawawi. Al-Marri was charged in federal court with running a credit-card scam to fund al-Qaida. But last June, President Bush named al-Marri an enemy combatant, one of just three nationwide, a designation that pulled him out of the civilian court system, put him under military control and stripped him of most Constitutional rights....

McCoy says Peoria and Champaign serve as ideal hosts for terrorists. Each city is home to a university with numerous Middle Easterners among the student body, thus enabling al-Qaida operatives to blend into each community.

McCoy says al-Qaida ops in central Illinois have been performing work similar to al-Marri: raising money and working computers. That information dovetails with a June report in Newsweek magazine, which cited FBI sources in pegging the Midwest (specifically Peoria) as the brains of terrorist activity in America.

McCoy says, "I'm not saying Peoria is condemned to die by terrorists. But we need to be vigilant."

Are we SURE this isn't just another recruiting scam for Wal-Mart, Sheriff?

Peoria part of terrorist 'circuit' - Peoria County Sheriff

Former West Peorian Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri has been locked up as an enemy combatant, but his terrorist comrades continue to work in central Illinois. Peoria and Champaign are part of a seven-city "circuit" that moves and disperses terrorists to specific sites across the nation, says Peoria County Sheriff Mike McCoy.

McCoy got that information at a recent FBI conference in Springfield. He shares that snippet of intelligence not to panic central Illinois, but to stress what the FBI told police at the conference: America, including much of its law-enforcement community, has not taken seriously enough the threat of al-Qaida in this country. "Police and Americans don't understand," McCoy says. "...They hate you. ... They are so focused on what they're doing, time is no object. They're patient."

The speaker at the police seminar was an FBI interrogator who served in the Lebanese military and speaks several dialects of Arabic. Those qualifications helped him to question 150 terrorism-related detainees at Guantanamo Bay. During his seminar, the FBI agent mentioned Peoria a handful of times in reference to al-Marri, the Bradley University graduate student arrested by the FBI in late 2001 at the West Peoria apartment he shared with his family.

Federal authorities allege the Qatari national had direct ties to Osama bin Laden, Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed Atta and alleged Sept. 11 money man Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawawi. Al-Marri was charged in federal court with running a credit-card scam to fund al-Qaida. But last June, President Bush named al-Marri an enemy combatant, one of just three nationwide, a designation that pulled him out of the civilian court system, put him under military control and stripped him of most Constitutional rights.

After the FBI seminar, Sheriff McCoy introduced himself to the speaker/agent who then told McCoy about a "circuit" that runs from the West to East coasts. The terrorists enter the United States in San Francisco and Los Angeles, then move to Phoenix, then Denver. From there, some head to Peoria and Champaign. Some terrorists remain in those communities, while others head on to New York City. McCoy says he and the agent did not get a chance to talk much more about the circuit. The agent did not specify the numbers of terrorists who may be working in central Illinois, nor did he say how the FBI is monitoring them. "One of the hard things is, you can't infiltrate these groups," McCoy says. "They know all these guys. It's not like you can go and say, 'I want to join your group.' "

McCoy says Peoria and Champaign serve as ideal hosts for terrorists. Each city is home to a university with numerous Middle Easterners among the student body, thus enabling al-Qaida operatives to blend into each community. McCoy says al-Qaida ops in central Illinois have been performing work similar to al-Marri: raising money and working computers. That information dovetails with a June report in Newsweek magazine, which cited FBI sources in pegging the Midwest (specifically Peoria) as the brains of terrorist activity in America. McCoy says, "I'm not saying Peoria is condemned to die by terrorists. But we need to be vigilant."

The FBI agent who talked with McCoy declined to speak to the Journal Star. Also refusing comment were Champaign County Sheriff Daniel Walsh, the Peoria FBI office and the Springfield-based U.S. Attorney's Office, whose 46 counties include Peoria and Champaign.

Peoria Police Chief John Stenson said he was unaware of any specific terrorism circuit that moves through Peoria. But as for the need for police to increase their awareness for possible terrorists, he said, "McCoy is 100 percent correct on this. ... Local procedures have changed."

A Peoria officer works full-time on a regional FBI task force, and other officers help out when needed. Stenson declined to talk in specifics about the work his department does with the FBI. But he did say, "It's ... intelligence, to run down leads." For instance, he says, his department has worked on cases involving the seizing of computers. During the two highest levels of national security alerts - orange and red; currently, it's set at orange - the task force becomes more fastidious. For example, if a car is left unattended in front of government building for what police feel is an inordinate time, they will tow away the auto as a precaution. Asked how much work the regional task force does in Peoria, Stenson would only say, "They're busy."

City police also work with the Illinois State Terrorism Task Force, comprised of agencies like law enforcement, fire departments, public works departments and emergency services. As part of a federal nationwide initiative after Sept. 11, the task force was created to prepare for the event of a terrorist attack. But this year, the task force also began working on terrorism prevention, says Peoria Police Capt. Steve Eakle, the local liaison to the task force.

In essence, police are keeping a keener eye out for anomalies, especially at water plants, bridges, airports and other potential terrorism targets. For instance, police recently stopped a group of people taking up-close photos of a Peoria bridge; after contacting the state task force and questioning the photographers, police deemed them no risk and let them go.

Also as part of the effort, police simply pay closer attention to peculiarities during routine stops, Eakle says. He points to patrol officer Greg Metz, who pulled over al-Marri for a traffic violation in early 2001. During the stop, al-Marri offered to post cash bond for the violation, in the process pulling from his trunk a briefcase stuffed with cash. Officer Metz later reported the oddity to his supervisors, and information helped start the FBI's probe of al-Marri.

Though Sheriff McCoy doubts the Peoria area will be attacked by terrorists, he has deputies taking a closer look at bridges, petroleum tanks and large manufacturers. But he mostly stresses to deputies the need to be alert during traffic stops. He likes to remind them that Timothy McVeigh was initially arrested not for the Oklahoma City bombing but by a trooper who pulled him over for a lack of a license plate. In questioning McVeigh, the trooper spotted a bulge in his waistband that turned out to be a loaded gun. Two days later, still in custody on the gun violation, McVeigh was tied to the bombing from evidence culled from the remains of the truck he'd rented for the attack.

That's how McCoy thinks America will fight terrorism on the home front. Not with bombastic, high-profile arrests, but thorough police work on a daily basis, looking for a deadly enemy hiding somewhere in central Illinois.

OK, I guess you're sure, Sheriff. So what's the Carrier-landing Baghdad-turkey-carrying He-man Leader of the Free Market World doing about defending Our Nation from the scourge of the international terrorism jihadis? He's in the counting house, of course! Counting out his campaign money!

Bush Campaign Has $99 Million in the Bank

President Bush, with no challenger for the Republican presidential nomination, begins the 2004 election year with a record $99 million in the bank and an aggressive plan to raise millions more. Bush's cash-on-hand total shows he's spent a fraction of the record $130.8 million he raised last year.

Bush plans to raise $150 million to $170 million in all. He hit the fund-raising trail again this week, with events in St. Louis; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Palm Beach, Fla. There are more events to come. "We think this is what we need to be able to build the kind of grass-roots effort we need to kind of share the president's message in a closely divided nation," campaign manager Ken Mehlman said. "We are a closely divided nation. We have a campaign that reflects that." Mehlman, who is keeping an eye on spending by Democratic-leaning interest groups active in the race, declined to say whether Bush would stop raising money when he reaches his goal. Bush has received contributions from every state and county, Mehlman said.

Much of Bush's money came thanks to a network of business executives, lobbyists, attorneys and other volunteer campaign fund-raisers who gathered at least $100,000 or $200,000 in donations to become Bush "pioneers" or "rangers." More than 300 people have raised $100,000 or more for Bush. In the last fund-raising quarter, from October through December, Bush raised $47 million. About $32 million came through fund-raisers, $14 million through direct mail, and $1 million over the Internet.

Bush's 2003 fund raising rivals that of all the Democratic candidates put together. They have raised at least $120.5 million, with John Kerry , John Edwards, Dick Gephardt , Joe Lieberman and Al Sharpton yet to release fourth-quarter totals. Unlike Bush, they have spent most of their money campaigning in the upcoming primaries. Bush's nearest challenger in the money chase, Democratic front-runner Howard Dean , raised about $40 million last year.

While Bush has relied largely on personal appearances to raise his campaign money, Dean has made prolific use of the Internet, raising millions so far. His Web site frequently challenges donors to help raise certain amounts: Currently, supporters in seven Feb. 3 primary states are being asked to help Dean collect $700,000 by midnight Friday. Like Bush, Dean is skipping public financing for his primary campaign, freeing himself from the overall and state-by-state spending limits that come with it. Dean has said he can match Bush dollar-for-dollar if 2 million Americans contribute $100 each.

Fund-raising experts in both parties believe Bush can raise $200 million or more for his primary campaign, double the record of roughly $100 million he collected for his 2000 race.

No major party nominee has ever refused public financing for the general election. As he did in 2000, Bush plans to accept that money, giving him full government financing of about $74 million when the GOP officially nominates him at its convention in New York City in September. That means any money Bush raises before he accepts the public financing must be spent before then to be of any use to him in the 2004 election.

Anticipating a close election, Bush is also giving attention to get-out-the-vote efforts and raising money for other Republicans. Mehlman is involved in an effort to organize CEOs into a grass-roots organization to support Bush's re-election efforts. Businesses are playing an increasingly important role urging their workers to vote as Republicans try to counter union voter outreach efforts.

On Wednesday, Bush was meeting with some of the Republican National Committee's biggest fund-raisers, including those who donate the maximum $25,000 per year that the nation's new campaign finance law allows.

Since too much is never enough, George has his hand out - horizontally - again.

GOP leaders to solicit energy funds

Rep. Dennis Rehberg, R-Mont., and Gov. Judy Martz are headed to Arizona this week for some fun and Republican strategizing. A group of Western House Republicans, including Rehberg, will meet today at a plush Arizona resort to raise money from coal, mining and energy companies and listen to what they want from Congress this year. Executives and lobbyists from companies like Arch Coal Inc., AngloGold North America and Kennecott Energy will pay $1,500 apiece to play golf and have dinner with Rehberg and 10 other Western Republican House members at the Arizona Biltmore Resort in Phoenix. The lawmakers belong to a new campaign fund-raising committee, called the Western GOP Majority Committee. The committee was formed in November and is sponsoring today's events.

On Thursday, Martz will be the keynote speaker at a two-day conference at the Biltmore in which participants will create a "Top 10 To-Do List" for Congress for 2004. She will be joined by congressmen, Bush administration officials and some of the same executives and lobbyists from Wednesday's fund-raiser. A hot topic for discussion, according to the agenda, is the effort in Congress this year to rewrite the Clean Air Act.

The Western Business Roundtable and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which are sponsoring the conference, tout the meeting on their Web site as a "casual setting" for their members to strategize, network and share ideas with national policy leaders. But political watchdog and environmental groups see the gathering as blatant buying of access by industries that often seek to have federal agencies and Congress relax environmental regulations. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new rules that would give utilities and coal companies an 11-year delay on meeting new emissions standards for some pollutants, including mercury. "It appears as if the real purpose of this event is for well-financed lobbyists to give campaign contributions to Republican members of Congress in return for access in helping to write anti-clean air and energy legislation," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of Clean Air Trust, a lobbying group.

Guidelines issued by the House ethics committee warn House members "to avoid even the appearance that solicitations of campaign contributions are connected in any way with an action taken or to be taken in their official capacity."

Rehberg's chief of staff, Erik Iverson, said his boss is going because it's a good opportunity to get input from Western business leaders. As a member of the House Resources Committee, Rehberg helps write legislation that affects mining and oil and gas companies' operations on public lands. "This is a good opportunity to address some critical issues facing the West, mainly how best to balance economic development and protection of our environment," Iverson said. He could not say whether Rehberg will let the conference sponsors pay his hotel bill, which will run $295 a night. Lawmakers are paying their own airfare.

Western Business Roundtable executive director Jim Sims said the event is nonpartisan, although he acknowledged that as of Tuesday night, no Democrats and only one environmental group -- The Campaign to Protect America's Lands -- had signed up to attend.

Today's fund-raising events are entirely separate from the conference, Sims said. He said the Western Business Roundtable, which he leads, is not related to the congressional fund-raising committee, which Sims said he set up on his personal time and organizes its events. "It is convenient that we are able to do a fund-raising event at the same time these members are in one city, Phoenix," Sims said. "That's it."

O'Donnell said the two groups certainly appear to be joined at the hip. "They're connected on their literature, they're connected on their Web site and they're connected on their invitation," O'Donnell said. "It may not be illegal, but it sure as heck looks inappropriate."

A few others agree.

Biltmore Energy meeting is out of bounds, critics charge

Critics say business executives are brazenly buying access to federal lawmakers and key energy officials this week at Phoenix's posh Biltmore Resort. The gathering includes a fund-raiser for Republican legislators, followed by an industry-dominated energy conference today. Both events were organized by the former communications director for Vice President Dick Cheney's controversial energy task force. At Wednesday's fund-raiser, a $3,000 donation allowed two members of a business to share "Mulligans and Margaritas" with lawmakers on the Biltmore's golf course before heading to a private dinner. Conference participants are invited to sponsor a panel on revisions to the Clean Air Act for $3,000, or spend $5,000 to support the keynote address by Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles.

Organizer Jim Sims said about 10 Republican members of Congress, including several from Arizona, would attend the fund-raiser and then be at the Biltmore for today's "Roundtable Summit of the West." But Sims said "there's no linkage" between the fund-raiser and conference, even though they were advertised together. "Want to help Congress write its 'To-Do' list for next year?" the promotion said, pitching the gathering as "several days of events designed to give a limited number of business leaders the opportunity to share ideas, concerns and suggestions with many national policymakers." "I'm involved in both, but that's the only connection," said Sims, a former lobbyist who is now executive director of the nonprofit Western Business Roundtable. "I happen to have these members (of Congress) in one city at one time . . . that's how we always do these things."

Activists are outraged and plan to hold a "counter news event" today in a rented conference room at the resort. "This conference is nothing less than a festival of access-buying," said Frank O'Donnell, executive director of the Clean Air Trust in Washington, D.C. Some in Congress also think the mixing of fund-raising and policy-making is inappropriate. Rep. Joel Hefley, R-Colo., chair of the House Ethics Committee, is listed as a conference participant. But Hefley's office said he never planned to attend. "It may be legal, but there's an appearance of impropriety. It simply doesn't look good," spokeswoman Sarah Shelden said. "He's very interested in Western land, water and energy issues and thinks they can be discussed at a hearing in Washington, D.C., just as easily and effectively."

After the Enron scandal, the transparency of federal energy policy became a hot political topic. Democrats accuse the Bush administration of excluding them from Cheney's energy task force. Republicans counter that Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean also held energy-related meetings in secret while he was governor of Vermont.

Wednesday's fund-raiser supported the Western GOP Majority Committee, which divides money among 20 Republican congressional candidates in the West, including Arizona's Jim Kolbe, John Shadegg, J.D. Hayworth and Rick Renzi. Sims said only Kolbe, Shadegg and Hayworth were attending the fund-raiser and energy conference. "This event is no different than any other fund-raising event," said Neena Moorjani, Kolbe's spokeswoman. Shadegg's office said he would attend the dinner but not take part in the golf or energy conference. Hayworth's offices in Washington and Scottsdale did not return calls seeking comment.

Kolbe, Shadegg and Hayworth have together received $56,488 from political action committees that represent companies attending the conference, according to figures provided by the Campaign to Protect America's Lands. "It is an alarming warning sign of how bad things have gotten that timber, oil and mining industries would be this brazen about buying their way onto the Capitol Hill agenda," said Peter Altman, director of the group.

Registration for the conference, which is co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, is $475 for businesses and $175 for nonprofits. "It's not a partisan event because we'll have a diversity of opinion," Sims said, noting that he invited many Democratic lawmakers and officials. But by midday Wednesday, no Democratic members of Congress had indicated they would attend the conference, he said.

More in Part 2

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