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Monday, November 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:34 P.M.

Some College Republicans regret donors were "misled"

By Jim Brunner and David Postman
Seattle Times staff reporters

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Some College Republicans say the national group's fund-raising tactics have "regretfully misled senior citizens" and want to immediately sever ties to the company that runs its direct-mail campaign.

Critics on the board of the College Republican National Committee worry the group could suffer "irreparable damage in the press, and leave the organization open to future litigation," according to a resolution prepared for a board meeting today in New Orleans.

"The College Republican name is getting smeared because of this," said Dan Centinello, chairman of the New York College Republicans, who is among those sponsoring the resolution to end the contract with Response Dynamics, Inc., a leading conservative direct-mail house.

The group's top donors are overwhelmingly elderly and include people who made hundreds of donations throughout the year in response to the constant solicitations that arrived in their mailboxes. Some of those donors said the letters were misleading and that the high-pressure tactics led them to give more money than they could afford.

But the president of Response Dynamics said College Republicans are in charge of the fund raising and that his company does not target senior citizens or mislead donors. "We do not prey on the elderly in any sense. We do not and would not," Ron Kanfer said. "We have never mailed specifically to old people. We mail [to] a broad spectrum of the American people."

College Republicans became one of the best-funded independent conservative committees this election year. The group raised more than $6.3 million this year and nearly $15 million since 2001, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

The Seattle Times reported late last month that many donors were surprised to learn their money had gone to the College Republican National Committee. Many of the solicitations bore the names of groups such as "Republican Headquarters 2004," "Republican Elections Committee" and the "National Republican Campaign Fund," with only the small print saying those were projects of the College Republican National Committee.

Some donors believed their money was going to President Bush's re-election campaign or other Republican efforts.

Instead, it went to the College Republicans, with nearly 90 percent being spent for direct-mail vendors and postage, according to records filed with the IRS. The bulk of the vendors' share was paid to Response Dynamics and four other firms that list Kanfer as a corporate officer.
 
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Kanfer disputes those numbers, but said a confidentiality agreement with College Republicans prohibits him from saying more.

College Republican leaders have defended their fund raising but have said very little publicly.

"The College Republican National Committee is concerned about any possible confusion stemming from the direct mailing practices of Response Dynamics Incorporated," said a statement released by the College Republicans' attorney.

"In recent years, the CRNC has instituted a refund and list removal policy that is strictly enforced. Any donor to the CRNC has the right to ask for a full refund of their gift and those requests are diligently processed."

College Republican leaders have not answered questions about their level of supervision of the fund raising. Kanfer, though, said they're in charge.

"The client is always in control," he said. "We work for them."

Kanfer said his company would not purposefully send multiple letters to a donor on the same day. He said the way the U.S. Postal Service handles bulk mail means that letters can sit for weeks before being delivered.

Eric Hoplin, chairman of College Republican National Committee, could not be reached for comment.

After the Seattle Times story was published last month, Hoplin sent a memo to state College Republican leaders telling them to decline comment. "We need the story to go away," the memo said.

The Herald-Sun of Durham, N.C., ran a similar story questioning College Republican fund-raising tactics on the same day the Times article was published.

Hoplin's memo said the media were simply trying to bash Republicans the week before the election and claimed the stories were full of "lies and distortions written by a well-known liberal who is out to get us."

Last week, Hoplin told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune in his home state that about a half-dozen donors have already had money refunded. The newspaper said Hoplin pledged to do the same for any unhappy donor.

At this weekend's board meeting, some College Republican state chairs will argue the group's good name is threatened by the fund-raising tactics.

"It's all being desecrated by poor decision making from the national level, from our chairman, Eric Hoplin," said Centinello, a junior at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y.

Centinello said Hoplin, as the CRNC's former executive director and now its chairman, had plenty of warning that the group's fund-raising tactics were questionable.

"He's not only hurting the elderly, he's not only hurting the College Republican name, he's hurting the party," Centinello said.

Michael Pomarico, chairman of the North Carolina Federation of College Republicans, also said he wanted answers from Hoplin and other leaders about the group's fund-raising tactics.

"The content [of the fund-raising letters] needs to be addressed. If that's happening, he [Hoplin] needs to fix it," Pomarico said.

But some other leaders contacted this week said they were not concerned about the fund-raising practices.

Paul Schafer, chairman of the Washington College Republican Federation, said he was "not personally concerned" about the issue. "It's something that they [CRNC leaders] knew about and something they were trying to resolve," said Schafer, a senior at Gonzaga University in Spokane.

Originally formed as an adjunct to the Republican National Committee, the College Republicans organization has been a starting place for many prominent conservatives, including Bush adviser Karl Rove and former Christian Coalition Executive Director Ralph Reed. The group is now incorporated as an independent 527 organization, named for the section of the tax code that allows such political groups to raise unlimited amounts of money.

Other large 527 organizations played a major role in the recent election, pouring millions of dollars into advertising and contributions to candidates. The College Republicans, by contrast, saw most of their contributions eaten up by fund-raising costs, with a small percentage going to pay for staff and field organizers on college campuses.

Questions over fund raising come as the group appears to be in a broader power struggle.

Hoplin, according to some state chairs, will propose a new governing board that some worry would help concentrate power in the group's D.C. headquarters.

Kanfer said that, just like any political organization, College Republicans have frequent infighting. "That's what political people do," he said.

College Republican leaders say they have thousands of satisfied donors who support their work organizing young conservatives around the country.

And there are state chairmen ready to defend the group's top officials at today's meeting.

"They've done a good job, fundamentally they're sound and they are an above-board organization that has helped Republicans win across the board," said James Mathews, the Alabama chairman and a senior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

David Postman: 360-943-9882 or dpostman@seattletimes.com

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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