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GOP alleges bribery in cigarette handouts

Democrats insist they had no connection to 'smokes for votes'

of the Journal Sentinel staff
Last Updated: Nov. 6, 2000

Republicans on Monday pressed for civil and criminal investigations of an alleged smokes-for-votes scheme, accusing the Democratic Party or Al Gore's campaign of bribing homeless men to vote absentee ballots for Gore.

Democrats continued to insist neither the party nor the Gore campaign authorized handing out packs of cigarettes to residents of the Rescue Mission homeless shelter. Each side, through a spate of news conferences and press releases, accused the other of exploiting the case for maximum effect in the waning hours of the tight presidential race.

Bush has held a slight lead over Gore in most Wisconsin and national polls in recent weeks, with the race tightening over the weekend. An MSNBC-Reuters poll conducted Friday through Sunday found Bush with 47% and Gore with 45% in Wisconsin.

The person fingered by Democrats in the scheme, Constance Milstein, has been a longtime major donor to Democratic candidates. Milstein was unavailable for comment Monday, but she issued a statement apologizing "if my actions Saturday at the homeless shelter caused any problems."

"My actions were those of a private, concerned citizen in an attempt to enable those less fortunate to participate in our political process," Milstein said in her statement.

Milstein was captured on a video report aired on WISN-TV (Channel 12) over the weekend saying she was busy going to Milwaukee shelters rounding up voters. Men from the Rescue Mission told Channel 12 they were offered single packs of cigarettes after they voted and weren't told whom to vote for.

Milstein has made some $422,000 in political donations to federal candidates or national parties since 1994, according to Federal Election Commission records. Most of that went to the Democratic National Committee and Democratic candidates such as Gore. But she also gave to some Republican officeholders such as U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato of New York and former Rep. Bob Livingston of Montana.

Competing news conferences

The flap drew the attention of national figures from both parties, who held separate, dueling news conferences. Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman, called the handouts bribes and said, "This is just plain and simple wrong."

Fleischer questioned whether similar operations on behalf of Gore were happening elsewhere in the country but said he had heard no such reports.

"I imagine if there is something you'll bring it to our attention," Fleischer told reporters in a national telephone press conference.

Rod Hise, chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, filed a civil complaint Monday with the state Elections Board. But Kevin Kennedy, executive director of the board, said it would be referred to the Milwaukee County district attorney because the complaint alleges a crime.

Kennedy called the cigarette case very unusual. Wisconsin campaign violation allegations brought to the Elections Board generally have been minor, he said, things like restaurants offering free cups of coffee for customers sporting "I voted" stickers.

State Rep. Scott Walker (R-Wauwatosa), the Milwaukee County chairman for the Bush campaign, gave information on the Channel 12 report to the district attorney's office and requested prosecution of those involved in the cigarette giveaway.

Assistant District Attorney Kurt Benkley said he would investigate the allegations. Wisconsin law makes it a crime to give anyone anything worth more than $1 in connection with voting. The penalty is up to 4 1/2 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Walker and other Republicans denounced the alleged cigarette scheme.

Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, chairman of the Bush campaign in Wisconsin, said: "There is absolutely no place in Wisconsin for this brand of gutter politics." He called for extra vigilance Tuesday by election officials to prevent voter fraud at the polls.

Democrats' response

However, Democratic National Committee Chairman Joe Andrew said the DNC, the state party and the Gore campaign had nothing to do with Milstein's actions in Milwaukee.

"This is an incident involving a single individual and maybe 12 voters," Andrew said. State party officials asked Milstein to leave Wisconsin, after the Channel 12 story was aired, national and local Democratic officials said.

Milstein came to Milwaukee on her own and was not escorted or aided by the party or Gore's campaign, said Susan Lagana, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Democratic Party.

Chuck Chvala, the Democratic leader of the state Senate, said the cigarette allegations paled in comparison to alleged campaign dirty tricks by Republicans that have come to light in recent days. Asked for specifics on the charge, Democratic Party officials said callers in Michigan and Virginia had identified themselves wrongly as being with the NAACP and urged a vote for Bush. The Bush campaign denied involvement, according to the Democrats.

The Milwaukee cigarette bribe allegation sounds like an odd and ineffective way of promoting turnout, said John J. Coleman, a University of Wisconsin-Madison political science professor.

"This seems like the longest of long shots," he said. "It seems like something the party itself would not want to have initiated," Coleman said, although he said he had no first-hand knowledge of the case.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Nov. 7, 2000.

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