Bush backers speak up at last

"The Anglo American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his goals, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common-sense of the citizens."
-- Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America," 1835

Two of the backers whose previously secret donations helped underwrite the launch of Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future finally have stepped up to acknowledge their actions and attack the report that brought them to light.

The largest donation, $70,000, from Miami-based Odebrecht Contractors of Florida, was intended to help Bush publish the book "Profiles in Character," said a spokesman for the contractor, whose parent corporation was involved in a 1992 government bribery scandal in Brazil.

A second contribution, $30,000 from a real estate developer and Bush's 1994 campaign finance chairman, was dedicated for the Liberty City Charter School begun by the foundation that Bush created and served as chairman before starting his current campaign for governor.

Both contributions -- but not their intended purposes -- were revealed last week by Orlando Weekly after months in which the Bush campaign has refused the requests of his challenger, Democratic Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, and the media to link contributors with the gifts given to the foundation in 1995, its inaugural year. The Bush campaign attempted to downplay the report by describing the Weekly to the Tampa Tribune as "an extremist fringe paper."

Bush still refuses to discuss specific contributions to the foundation in 1996, and his campaign has refused to confirm the 1995 gifts, which were detailed in an Internal Revenue Service tax document obtained by the Weekly.

"Jeb is one of the few Republicans trying to make the link between Republican conservatism and the black community," said Al Hoffman, the $30,000 donor. That the creation of this link apparently has paid Bush big dividends in his campaign is mere by-product, he said.

"Do I hope to influence public policy? Absolutely," he said. "Do I give money to influence public policy? Absolutely. There I refer you to Alexis de Tocqueville. Read what he wrote about enlightened self-interest. But don't reverse it. Enlightened self-interest is a legitimate activity. You want to give money to the party that most represents your views, because then local people are involved."

Hoffman and Odebrecht were the only large donors to respond to repeated requests for interviews about their support of the foundation.

"It was never considered mysterious or secret," said Odebrecht corporate spokesman David Peebles. "We were consulted `by the Bush campaign`. We said there was no problem releasing the information. We're proud."

Peebles says his company regularly sponsors the publication of books, such as a retrospective this year of Jorge Amado, Brazil's most famous writer.

Peebles was most upset about the Weekly's portrayal of Odebrecht's involvement in Brazilian bid-rigging and bribery. Dozens of stories appeared in newspapers around the world during the corruption scandal, but the Weekly's source of Odebrecht's apparent admissions of bribery was a 1993 Miami Herald piece by reporter Katherine Ellison, republished by the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which the Weekly erroneously credited with the story. Peebles insisted Odebrecht never paid any bribes, but refused to say how the reporting was wrong.

Hoffman, Bush's 1994 campaign finance chairman and a board member of the Foundation for Florida's Future who is chiefly responsible for raising funds, said many companies bribe foreign officials because it's the local custom: "If you think the `Odebrecht` donation to the foundation was an attempt at bribery -- that's a stretch."

Bush's motives were -- and are -- "to go forth and do good," said Hoffman, one of Florida's largest home developers. "If the public-policy work that the foundation does benefits Florida -- and I challenge you to report this exactly this way -- if it's good for Florida, then it's good for Jeb and it's good for everyone. So to the extent that Jeb is associated with the good work that the foundation does, it certainly is a good credential for the governor."

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