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Bucks candidate only one of many using reciprocal donations

CARLSBAD, N.M. - Both men seem like unlikely boosters for a Bucks County Democrat running for Congress. Robert L. Franco owns a trucking company in this dusty southwestern city. Larry Bonderud is an optometrist and seven-term mayor of a Montana town 35 miles south of Canada.

CARLSBAD, N.M. - Both men seem like unlikely boosters for a Bucks County Democrat running for Congress.

Robert L. Franco owns a trucking company in this dusty southwestern city. Larry Bonderud is an optometrist and seven-term mayor of a Montana town 35 miles south of Canada.

Until recently, neither had donated to a federal candidate outside his home state.

But last year, each man steered thousands of dollars to the campaign of Kevin Strouse, a Democrat hoping to unseat Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.). Their donations arrived just as Strouse's parents gave identical amounts to Democrats whom Franco and Bonderud had backed in their home states.

The seemingly reciprocal contributions match a pattern first reported by The Inquirer in May, in which parents of Democratic candidates in California, Florida, Colorado, and Illinois sent money to Strouse's campaign as his parents contributed to their children's campaigns.

In each instance, the donors - including Strouse's parents - had already reached the federal limit on donations to their children or favored candidates at home. Federal Election Commission filings show Strouse's campaign has collected at least $56,800 from parents, candidates, or supporters of candidates whose campaigns together received at least $65,000 from his parents.

Donor swaps are generally legal, according to several campaign-finance experts, though one said they could fall into a gray area depending on the circumstances.

Strouse, his parents, campaign officials, and party leaders have declined interview requests to discuss the donations, instead issuing statements about how Democrats often support like-minded candidates.

Last week, The Inquirer approached Franco and Bonderud in their hometowns to ask about their cross-country contributions to the Bucks County candidate.

Each had a vastly different response.

A mystery check

In brief interviews at his home and office in Carlsbad, a flat desert city of 23,000 flooded with the white pickup trucks of oil and natural gas workers, Franco said he had no idea how a donation in his name ended up with Strouse.

"I don't even know the dude," Franco said.

He had already given the maximum to Roxanne "Rocky" Lara, a Democrat running for Congress from Carlsbad.

When Strouse's mother gave $5,200 to Lara late last year, Franco donated the same amount to Strouse two days later.

In the interviews, Franco said he remembered donating to Lara but not writing a check for Strouse. He said he typically avoids politics - his contribution to Lara was his first to a federal candidate.

He referred further questions to Lara's law practice. Lara's office and campaign, however, declined to comment.

A day later in Shelby, Mont., Bonderud was more willing to discuss his donation to Strouse.

The Republican mayor, who calls himself "Mayor Lar" and who oversees a city of 4,000 set amid wind farms, cattle ranges, a fertilizer plant, and oil and gas sites, said he often donates to moderates in both parties.

He said he learned about Strouse from John Lewis, a longtime acquaintance, former aide to ex-Montana Sen. Max Baucus, and now a congressional candidate. According to Bonderud, Lewis met Strouse at a Democratic training session in Washington.

"A friend of John's is a friend of mine, I thought, and worthy of support," Bonderud said.

Bonderud said he looked into the Pennsylvania candidate's website, along with those of a few other Democrats Lewis had met, around August or September.

But - like his New Mexican counterpart - Bonderud didn't donate to anyone but Strouse. He said the others he considered were "too far left."

The mayor said he had one phone conversation with Strouse and found him a moderate near-clone of Lewis. He said he hoped to meet Strouse when he visits Philadelphia this month.

Bonderud and his son, Joren, each gave Strouse $2,600 on Dec. 30, the same day Strouse's father, Robert, sent $5,200 to Lewis, FEC filings show.

For Joren Bonderud, a graduate student in Puerto Rico, the donation was his first and only federal contribution. Bonderud said that he encouraged his son to give, but that Joren had made his own decision and used his own money.

Bonderud said he didn't know Strouse's parents, was unaware of Robert Strouse's donations to Lewis, and couldn't explain the coincidence of identical contributions on the same day.

"Not at all," Bonderud said. "You're the first one to tell me about it."

'Eager' to help

On Thursday, Norma Strouse had hung up on a reporter asking about the donations, and Robert Strouse, president of an investment firm in King of Prussia, did not return requests for comment.

In a statement released Friday by their son's campaign, the couple said: "We support Kevin and have been eager to support candidates like him."

The campaign also said the Strouses had no role in recruiting donors to reciprocate their donations.

Nearly all of the candidates who have received Strouse family donations are on Democrats' lists of top priority challengers and incumbents.

A spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said Friday the organization didn't encourage candidates to seek out donors who had given to other top candidates or to help the Strouses find donors willing to give back to their son's campaign.

Rep. Steve Israel (D., N.Y.), the Democratic committee chairman, said Thursday that he was unfamiliar with Strouse's contributions, but that the party encouraged candidates "to do everything that they are able to do to raise resources."

Even if the donors knew about the Strouses' matching contributions, the donations were likely legal, campaign-finance experts told The Inquirer last month. Larry Noble, former general counsel to the FEC, said Friday a gray area could develop if conditions were placed on contributions - such as an understanding that a donation would be given only if a matching contribution were sent back.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who once served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in an interview last month donor exchanges were done all the time - including three or four times when he participated in them in his years in office. He said he was trying to help friends whose donors had hit their contribution limits.

Though Rendell endorsed Strouse's opponent, Shaughnessy Naughton, in the May 20 Democratic primary, he said before that election he didn't think there should be any negative connotation for the donations, coordinated or not.

"Does it at first blush seem to be unfair or illegal? Possibly, but it's not," Rendell said. "The FEC knows that it's going on, and they haven't found anything wrong with it."