Candidate Fisher says fundraising firm brought in nearly $400,000 but only passed on $30,000 to her
By Steve Huffman
Dr. Ada Fisher, who sought to unseat Mel Watt in a 2006 race for Congress, said she fell victim to a less-than-ethical fundraising firm during the campaign.
Fisher, a Salisbury resident, said BMW Direct, a Washington, D.C.-based direct-mail firm, raised almost $400,000 for her campaign. But Fisher said she got less than $30,000 of that money.
"I was furious," Fisher said. "I'm still furious."
She said BMW Direct was recommended to her by one of her former campaign consultants. Fisher said when she contacted the company, officials there responded by asking her to complete a questionnaire regarding where she stood on a variety of issues.
Fisher said she told BMW Direct she'd be tough on illegal immigrants while working to make health care affordable to average Americans and improving national defense.
The company, according to Fisher, then mailed several thousand "test letters" to see if she was a viable candidate for BMW Direct to do fundraising.
They were happy with the results of those test letters, Fisher said, and sent more to a select market of voters who they felt would be receptive to a candidate with Fisher's convictions.
One of the letters the company mailed read:
"Dear Ada, Thank you for standing up to Mel Watt, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and Julian Bond. We need to stop their dangerous liberal policies from harming America any further."
The letter ended with boxes the recipients could check indicating the amount of money they were sending to Fisher's campaign. The largest of those boxes was for a $2,000 donation while the smallest was for $35.
Donors also had the option of contributing any other amount they wished.
The money apparently poured in.
BMW Direct is known as a conservative direct-mail fundraising firm. According to a report in the Boston Globe, more than 80 percent of the contributions come from outside the candidate's home state and most donors disclose their occupations as "retired."
Calls to BMW Direct from the Post were not returned.
According to published reports, the company is notorious for returning less than 10 percent of the money raised to the candidates for whom they were intended.
The Globe reported earlier this month that BMW Direct in 2006 raised more than $700,000 for long-shot candidate Charles Morse in his bid to unseat U.S. Rep. Barney Frank.
Of the $700,000 that BMW Direct raised, all but 4 percent went to the company to pay fees to itself, unaffiliated firms and its contractors.
By comparison, Fisher should perhaps consider herself lucky. She said she got about 7 percent of the money that BMW Direct raised in her name.
She said she's filed complaints about the firm with the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service and also complained to a Senate committee investigating campaign finance reform.
Fisher said she isn't looking for financial compensation for herself or her campaign, but said she's pushing for campaign finance reform that'll make it possible for citizens of average income and wealth to seek office, and not depend on out-of-state firms to raise money.
"Otherwise, we're only going to have government by the wealthy and well-connected for the wealthy and well-connected," Fisher said.
She said direct-mail firms should be required to state on their letters of solicitation who they are and what percent of the money raised will go to the candidate.
Fisher said the company's own employees shouldn't be allowed to serve as campaign treasurers or officers and should disclose their tie-ins with the groups who print or mail for them.
It's a lesson that Fisher said she learned the hard way.
She said she learned after contracting with BMW Direct that the company owned the businesses that both printed and mailed her campaign letters.
She said the percent of money she was to receive through the mailings was never indicated in any contract she signed.
Fisher said it's a mistake she won't repeat.
"I learned after the fact that candidates don't get more than 30 percent" of the money raised by most direct-mail firms, she said.
Fisher said she suffered a heart attack and was sick through part of her campaign, making it increasingly difficult for her to keep track of all that was involved with the fundraising.
"As a result of the complexity of our dealings and my emerging illness, it was often difficult to get information in a timely fashion," she said.
Fisher said some of the fundraising information supplied by BMW Direct came just two days before the deadline by which it had to be filed with the Federal Election Commission.
She said the information was submitted a day after the filing deadline, resulting in a $6,000 fine.
The irony, Fisher said, is her campaign was fined based on the full $397,000 raised by BMW Direct, not the less than $30,000 she received.
"What we have done is drive the average candidate out of running for office at the state and national levels (because) the bookkeeping (requires) a CPA to keep it straight," Fisher wrote in an e-mail to the Post.
She said the cost of professional bookkeepers is more than non-incumbents will raise. The cost of campaign managers averages $2,000 to $5,000 per month, Fisher said, also more than most non-incumbents can afford.
"My experiences have made me a supporter of campaign reform for if we don't do something sensible, public office will continue to be the province of the rich, by the rich and for the rich and well-connected," she wrote.
Fisher said any campaign is expensive, noting it's projected that $150,000 is needed to run a campaign for the N.C. House, a campaign in which she's now involved. She's challenging incumbent N.C. Rep. Lorene Coates.
Fisher said she favors candidate debates over spending large amounts on advertising. She especially prefers, she said, debates held before the start of Early Voting.
Direct-mail firms like BMW Direct apparently skirt the line of illegality. They fall, election experts say, somewhere between the jurisdiction of Federal Election Commission rules and local consumer protection statutes, which are enforced by states.
"These people have found the loopholes," Scott Harshbarger, who served three years as national president of Common Cause, an advocacy group that monitors election fundraising.
Ed McDonald, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), said it's hard to be too safe when it comes to contracting with a direct-mail firm.
"What they do is not illegal, it's just outrageous," he said.
McDonald said it's important for candidates to set the parameters of the fundraising ahead of time, specifying in a contract how much goes to the candidate and what goes to the fundraising firm.
Fisher said she learned as much during her 1996 campaign. She said the first indication that something is amiss should come when donors see that the check they're mailing doesn't go to the home city of the candidate.
"They think that if they give a dollar to the candidate, it all goes to the candidate, and that's not true," Fisher said.
She said that for those wanting to make sure their donations go for the purpose they're intended, it's best to find the candidate's address and send the money directly to him or her.
Fisher said her campaign for the N.C. House is a much more low-key affair, based more on face-to-face contact and no direct mailings.
"My goal is to shake 500 to 1,000 hands every week," she said. "The people whose hands I shake will be those I represent."