So You Want to Buy a President?

Ron Brown

Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash in April 1996, was far from being the first Commerce Secretary to be accused of using his job to pressure American businesses for political contributions or to reward those who have written his party checks. President Bush's Commerce Secretary and campaign finance chairman, Robert Mossbacher, faced similar allegations when he was the nation's top business official.

Still, controversy followed Brown through most of his career, both in and out of government. The charge most frequently leveled against the millionaire former Democratic National Committee Chairman was that he traded on his personal and political contacts for his own gain or to unfairly help his political allies.

Brown, who was a civil rights activist before he became one of Washington's best-paid and most well-known lawyer/lobbyists, once told an interviewer a story about his boyhood in Harlem. Brown's father managed a hotel there that attracted black celebrities, among them Louis Armstrong and heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, the "Brown Bomber," who dubbed young Ron "Little Brown." The boy made a brief career out of getting the autographs of famous guests in his father's hotel and selling them to his friends. "Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis would go for $5 a pop," Brown once recalled. The operation came to a halt when the boxers got wind of it.

As an adult, Brown was no less well-connected. He worked as a young lawyer for the Urban League and as chief counsel to the US Senate Judiciary Committee. He was also involved in the 1980 Presidential bid of Senator Edward Kennedy.

In 1981, he joined the Washington law firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow as one of its first black partners. The firm has long been a political powerhouse, especially within the Democratic Party. Name partner Tommy Boggs, for instance, is one of the capitol's premier lobbyists and is personally close to President Clinton.

At Patton, Boggs & Blow, Brown got used to six-figure paychecks and became known for his effectiveness as a lobbyist and his somewhat flamboyant style -- he favors, for instance, custom-tailored suits and is rarely seen in public without a monogrammed shirt and a collar pin. He also became acquainted with controversy.

In 1982, Brown was named deputy chairman of the Democratic National Committee. That same year, he began lobbying the U.S. government on behalf of the brutal Duvalier regime which was then in power in Haiti. Over the next four years, Brown earned $630,000 helping to persuade the Administration to continue aid to the government of dictator Jean-Claude ("Baby Doc") Duvalier. Brown refused to drop the Duvaliers despite being criticized for representing such unsavory clients.

In 1989, Brown became chairman of the Democratic National Committee, putting his formidable fund-raising and organizational skills to work on behalf of a party that had not controlled the White House since 1981. After President Clinton's election in 1992, Brown was named Secretary of Commerce, where he made an irresistable target for the President's Republican opponents in Congress. (Some of those critics were already interested in eliminating the Commerce Department altogether.) Early in his tenure, he was accused of accepting a bribe from a Vietnamese businessman in exchange for promoting US trade with that country. The FBI investigated the allegations but no charges were ever brought against Brown. He always maintained he did nothing wrong.

Brown's Commerce Department was staffed at its senior levels with former DNC officials. Critics, chief among them Republican Congressman William Clinger, charged those people used their government positions to solicit campaign contributions to the Democratic Party and to reward the party's business friends with special favors. While it is not unusual for incoming agency heads to carry over their personal staff from their former jobs, FRONTLINE identified 15 DNC veterans who went with Brown to key positions at Commerce, most of them from party fund-raising, finance, and business outreach operations. Brown denied Clinger's charges and defended the appointments to FRONTLINE, saying the ex-DNC staffers were "very experienced in dealing with business people" and adding, "The fact is, you bring in the people who you've worked with, who you have confidence in, who you know can deliver."

An aspect of Brown's tenure at Commerce that drew the most fire was the matter of which business executives were selected to accompany Brown on international trade missions like the one he took to China and Hong Kong in August and September 1994. Twenty five executives flew with Brown on a modified 707 which once served as Air Force One. FRONTLINE determined that over 70 percent of the business delegates on the China trip were donors to Clinton and the Democrats, among them Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic whose firm gave $236,625, and Robert Denham of Solomon Brothers, down for $109,722, not including a $50,000 gift to President Clinton's inauguration.

While many of the participants on Brown's trade trips were also big givers to the GOP, the percentage of Democratic givers accompanying him on major trade missions to the Middle East, Russia, India, South Africa and Latin America ranged between 56 and 67 percent.

Brown, however, rejected the suggestion that politics influenced the selection of trade delegations, telling FRONTLINE that "very detailed criteria" were used in selecting executives for the trips and political contributions were not among them.

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