WASHINGTON — A political watchdog group called for investigations Monday to determine whether fundraisers for John McCain's presidential campaign arranged illegal "straw" donations — contributions from people who did not spend their own money.
Campaign Money Watch urged Attorney General Michael Mukasey to probe the activities of Florida defense contractor Harry Sargeant III, who is credited with raising more than $500,000 for the campaign. It also questioned $57,000 in donations from an office manager for the oil giant, the Hess Corp., and her husband, a railroad foreman.
The McCain campaign last week returned $50,000 of the donations tied to Sargeant, citing published reports that some California donors did not intend to vote for McCain. The campaign also sent a letter to others who contributed via Sargeant, stressing that only U.S. citizens or permanent residents may donate, and only if they use their own funds.
In a letter to Mukasey, David Donnelly, the executive director of Campaign Money Watch, said that merely returning questionable donations would "sweep them under the rug and would further damage the public's faith in our democratic process.''
His letter was accompanied by a petition carrying 12,000 signatures gathered by the liberal-leaning group Moveon.org Political Action.
A Justice Department official said the agency had yet to receive the letter and would have no comment.
Sargeant, who could not be reached for comment, is a college friend of Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and serves as finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party. He had help in raising the money from Mustafa Abu Naba, his partner in the International Oil Trading Co., which holds a Pentagon contract worth up to $1 billion to deliver jet fuel to U.S. military bases in Iraq.
Referring to Abu Naba, Donnelly called it ``of questionable legality for foreign nationals to participate in fundraising and finance decisions for federal candidates.''
He also urged an investigation of two donations of $28,500 each by Alice Rocchio, the Hess Corp. office manager, and by her husband, Pasquale, to a joint fundraising committee set up by McCain and the Republican National Committee.
The couple made their contributions within days of McCain's reversal of his longstanding opposition to offshore oil drilling and on the same day that seven Hess executives and two of their relatives each donated the same amount. Among them were Chairman and Chief Executive Officer John Hess, who has raised more than $500,000 for McCain.
While it's "understandable" that Hess executives might give generously to McCain, Donnelly wrote, "that does not explain how Mr. and Ms. Rocchio came to give these significant amounts given what appears to be their modest lifestyle."
The couple lives in an apartment in the New York borough of Queens. McClatchy reported last week that Alice Rocchio drives a 1993 Chevy Cavalier. The couple, who said they contributed because they supported McCain, had earlier given $4,600.