Billionaire Foster Friess Discusses Campaign Finance

Jan 19, 2012
Originally published on January 19, 2012 9:16 pm
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This primary season marks the advent of presidential super PACs: funding groups that can raise unlimited funds and advertise in support of a candidate so long as it's not coordinating with the candidate's campaign. Sheldon Adelson has acknowledged giving millions to a super PAC that supports Newt Gingrich. Jon Huntsman Sr. is reported to have supported the super PAC that backed his son. And Foster Friess, whom we're going to hear from now, is the main benefactor of a super PAC called the Red, White and Blue Fund, which has bought advertising on behalf of former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum. Mr. Friess joins us from Scottsdale, Arizona. Welcome to the program.

FOSTER FRIESS: Well, I'm glad to be with you, Robert. It's a nice sunny day here, and I hope you're enjoying a good weather day as well.


SIEGEL: Not as good weather as you're getting. Here's the big question about super PACs: Should billionaires have the ability to single-handedly, if need be, keep a presidential campaign afloat?

FRIESS: It's interesting hardly any people raised these questions back when George Soros put in 20 million and Peter Lewis put in 14 million to bring down George Bush. I think you also want to make the point that CNN, for example, is a corporation. So when they put on a TV show which maybe could show favoritism towards a given candidate or against a given candidate, that certainly could be considered as a political contribution as well in terms of millions and millions and millions of dollars of the media that goes out. So I think...

SIEGEL: But do you, Mr. Friess, do you really see no difference between contributions to a super PAC and paying for coverage of the presidential race at CNN or MSNBC, Fox News or NPR?

FRIESS: Yeah. I see it quite - as very similar in, for instance, if CNN does a program or you do a program, National Public Radio, which could reflect your particular favoritism towards a given candidate, you, National Public Radio, is a corporation. So to give me a chance to compete with you, I think, is a very good thing.

SIEGEL: I'll set aside your characterization. I don't think that would describe any NPR program I can think of. But as an individual, don't I have the same freedom of speech that you have, and why should you have 1,000 times more ability to express yourself than I have?

FRIESS: Well, if you look at how that plays out, Meg Whitman certainly didn't see that made a lot of difference, did it? You know, the Senate is controlled by Democrats. The White House is controlled by the Democrats. We barely have the House. So it looks like we who could be considered wealthy are at a distinct disadvantage when we're competing against all the money from the Service Employees International Union and from all the money where Barack Obama - I think he's going to have about a billion dollars and...

SIEGEL: Well, we do know that all candidates need money when they run for office. Money is obviously important to them. Is it fair to require people to disclose who's backing them and who's backing the groups that back them? So that - and that could include unions. It can include millionaires. It can include people who give 100 bucks. But is it reasonable to say I'd like to know if there's a candidate in a race who has the super PAC that is essentially laundering his allowance that I should know that, that's who's keeping him in the race?

FRIESS: If the way that we can make our whole system more honest and straightforward is that you or I could give whatever amounts we want directly to the campaign, then you don't get this whole notion, well, I can't control the people that put up ads for me. And I think that's the fairest way, and so I think you and I would be joined at the hip on that proposal. I think letting people...

SIEGEL: Well, I'm not making that proposal, but I'm saying it's often advocated that there should be disclosure. And if there were, you're saying that these institutions, like super PACs and 527s, these are the results of attempts to prevent people from just being able to give as much money as they want to?

FRIESS: Well, it's exactly what's happened with - under McCain-Feingold, where people were limited to $2,500, and so I would say that you could - anybody could give whatever amount they want directly to the candidate fully disclosed, period. Then, you don't have all the legal hoops you have to jump through. You know, it's a nightmare figuring out, you know, who can I say to what? And every time I want to call someone, I have to call up my lawyer, and I say, you know, can I say this and say that? Because, as you know, the super PACs and the candidates' campaigns have to be completely at arm's length.

SIEGEL: Well, let me ask you about the arm's length that's required between the super PACs and the candidates. I've heard critics of the super PACs say that, yeah, sure, the activists that say the Red, White and Blue Fund that you've been involved with can't talk to the Santorum campaign, but you could look at his schedule and see where he'll be in Florida on which day and decide whether to buy advertising time in Miami or in Orlando, when to do it. You can hear what he's saying in speeches and figure out what arguments to amplify in advertising. The argument is it's arm's length, but it's a very short arm.

FRIESS: Well, I don't know what you're suggesting you do about that.

SIEGEL: I guess, your solution to that is just let me give me to the campaign, change the law so I can give directly to them.

FRIESS: Yeah. Well, that would be very straightforward, and everybody would be on the same page. There would not be any of this comment, well, I can't control my super PAC. You'd get rid of all that back and forth, and it would be very straightforward, clean and honest.

SIEGEL: Well, Foster Friess, Mr. Friess, thank you very much for talking with us today.

FRIESS: Bye-bye, Robert.

SIEGEL: Billionaire Foster Friess is the main benefactor of a super PAC that supports Rick Santorum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.