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Wednesday, March 2, 2005 - Page updated at 08:07 a.m.

College Republicans dump aggressive fund-raising firm

Seattle Times staff reporters

Enlarge this photoJ. SCOTT APPLEWHITE / AP

Eric Hoplin, president of College Republicans, speaks at the Republican National Convention on Aug. 30, 2004, at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The College Republican National Committee said yesterday it has terminated a long-term contract with a direct-mail fund-raising company that brought the young-conservatives group a steady income but also complaints about aggressive and misleading solicitations.

The Seattle Times and the Durham, N.C., Herald-Sun reported in October that the College Republicans and Response Dynamics Inc. were raising millions of dollars from donors, many in their 80s and 90s, using a barrage of letters that convinced the donors they were helping President Bush's re-election campaign.

As part of a negotiated end to a relationship that began 13 years ago, Response Dynamics will continue raising money on behalf of the College Republicans for three more months and will continue to take the vast majority of the money raised, said Eric Hoplin, chairman of the College Republican National Committee.

Hoplin said he has been trying to end the contract for years. But it was written in a way that made that difficult because College Republicans were kept in debt to the Virginia direct-mail company, he said. The relationship continued, Hoplin said, despite misgivings about the tone and tenor of the fund raising.

Many contributors interviewed by The Times last fall said they hadn't known they were giving to the College Republicans. Some said they had felt pressured into giving more than they could afford because of the constant appeals arriving in the mail.

Hoplin said the College Republicans would discuss refunds with unhappy donors and said he wants to hear from anyone unhappy with fund-raising practices. He said the group has asked Response Dynamics to refund about $15,000 total to four donors. Still pending are requests for about $200,000 in refunds from three other donors.

College Republicans organize and recruit volunteers on college campuses, aiding in local and national campaigns. The group says it has tripled in size in recent years, with 120,000 members on more than 1,100 campuses across the country.

The group's fund-raising letters often made it sound like the donors were making crucial contributions to the presidential race and in some cases implied Bush himself was counting on the money. But in fact, the money went to College Republicans, with about 90 percent of donations going back to fund-raising costs and fees to Response Dynamics and affiliated firms, according to reports filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

Hoplin said the College Republicans were terminating a relationship with Response Dynamics that started in 1992. The groups' contract featured an automatic two-year renewal clause and a guarantee that Response Dynamics could continue raising money until it paid off debts from initial fund-raising expenses.

"I'm certainly proud to say this: Response Dynamics and College Republicans started their relationship when I was 13 years old. I inherited this problem and I fixed the problem," said Hoplin, who has been chairman of College Republicans since July 2003.

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A new company has been hired to help raise money, and Hoplin said fund raising will be done in a far different style. He said College Republicans will be able to keep a larger share of the money raised.

No more will the group raise money under various "projects" that were used in fund-raising letters and that made it difficult to know where the money was going.

Groups such as "Republican Headquarters 2004" and "Republican Leadership Committee," with vaguely different missions, were names on letterhead crafted by Response Dynamics and signed by various people with multiple titles.

In the new fund-raising letters, "There are no project names whatsoever," Hoplin said. "I sign every letter and it comes out with our logo that says College Republican National Committee."

"The volume, the tone, of the mail is different," he said. "Response Dynamics relies on a very aggressive tone, an emergency tone."

Ron Kanfer, president of Response Dynamics, yesterday would say little about his company's relationship with College Republicans. But he said the company never did anything without the group's OK.

"Everything that was done was done with the express written approval of the College Republicans," he said.

When asked about the contract termination, Kanfer said, "I don't know anything about that." He told a reporter to talk to the attorney for College Republican National Committee.

The attorney, Craig Engle, said Hoplin was not trying to "bury RDI or anybody." He said Hoplin wants people to know about the campaign work College Republicans have done.

"He is out there to explain to not only the press, the public, his donors, members of College Republicans and, indirectly, the Bush campaign, here's what we were able to do," Engle said of the group's 2004 activities.

Hoplin said yesterday that College Republicans didn't always know what Response Dynamics was sending out under the group's name. The contract called for approval of all mail by College Republicans, but the outgoing letters were so numerous, the group couldn't keep up, he said.

If the material was not reviewed in a timely manner, the contract allowed Response Dynamics to mail it out without review, Hoplin said.

He said he takes responsibility for not seeing some of the aggressive appeals.

"I took Response Dynamics for granted," Hoplin said. "It took me a little while to figure out that this was something I didn't want representing us."

The fund-raising practices have triggered a feud within the College Republicans, with critics arguing that Hoplin did not do enough to stop the practices until after the news media exposed them.

Dan Centinello, chairman of the New York College Republicans, applauded Hoplin for severing the fund-raising contract but said it didn't erase the culpability of the group's leaders.

"Being a Republican, we believe in personal responsibility, and they still have not taken responsibility for what has happened," Centinello said.

The controversy has clouded the group's elections for a chairman to replace Hoplin, who is leaving after four years to run for deputy chairman of the Minnesota Republican Party. While volunteers fill most of the group's positions, the salaried position of national chairman is considered a prestigious steppingstone for young conservative leaders.

Paul Gourley, the group's treasurer, is running to succeed Hoplin as chairman. But Gourley's signature appeared on some of the group's most questionable fund-raising letters.

They included a letter that suggested to an elderly woman that Bush, at the national GOP convention, would wear an American flag lapel pin that the woman had prayed over — if only she would send the pin back to the College Republican National Committee with $1,000, plus $10 for shipping.

"Once I read that letter, I almost fell over," Centinello said.

Some critics of Hoplin and Gourley are throwing their support behind Michael Davidson, chairman of the California College Republicans.

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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