Can a Donation Buy Legislation?

Rep. Stephen Buyer is interviewed by CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson. CBS

After repeated requests, Congressman Stephen Buyer finally agreed to sit down for a brief interview with CBS News Investigative Correspondent Sharyl Attkisson.

The subject: a small non-profit he founded in 2003. Who's paying for it and what are they getting in return?

Sharyl Attkisson: Where did the $25,000 to start the foundation come from?

Rep. Stephen Buyer: You know what? I was asked that question and I don't recall.

Attkisson: How can you not know where the $25,000 came from?

Buyer: I don't. Serious. I don't recall.

In fact, six years after the Frontier Foundation started, it's collected more than $800,000. Yet it hasn't spent a penny on scholarships.

It can be difficult to know where Buyer's re-election campaign ends and his Frontier Foundation begins. His campaign and Foundation shared office space. Until August, his campaign manager also ran his Foundation - inviting select donors to golf outings with Buyer at posh resorts.

When nobody from the Frontier Foundation returned our calls, we went to the address listed on their tax forms in Monticello, Indiana and found an empty office.

So we visited Buyer's local Congressional office and staffers there said the Foundation and campaign had just relocated next door.

We knocked on that door, but couldn't get the woman inside to answer.

Buyer told us the Foundation no longer has a physical address.

"I was so focused on making sure that we were legal, that I probably didn't pay as close attention as I should have on, quote, appearances," Buyer said.

Part of that "appearance" problem has to do with the nature of the Foundation's donors.

Attkisson: From what I can tell, all of the donors have interests before committees that you sit on in Congress.

Buyer: Well, the committees in which were, uh, the committees, the corporations in which provided support, like I said, were those original companies. Please do not assume that if a company contributes to the foundation that that's somehow some type of influence upon what I'm about to do.

But that's exactly what Buyer's critics suggest.Consider that he sits on Committees that oversee drugs, tobacco and telecommunications. All of his Foundation donors are from those industries.

After his Foundation received hundreds of thousands of dollars from pharmaceutical interests, Buyer took up a number of pharmaceutical industry priorities and sponsored bills they supported.

After tobacco interests gave generously, Buyer opposed a bill giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco.

Attkisson: You instead sponsored an RJ Reynolds supported alternative. And RJ Reynolds is a donor to your foundation.

Buyer: I created this. RJ Reynolds didn't create that. Steve Buyer created that.

And then there's his controversial support of smokeless tobacco.

He says it nothing to do with donations from US Smokeless Tobacco Company.

"Trying to match up legislation like that is erroneous," Buyer said. "You should do that Sharyl. I think that it's, I think it's wrong."

As evidence that donors aren't buying his favor, Buyer points out he's against health care reform, which the pharmaceutical industry supports.

But he says he wants to clear up any misunderstanding.

"If any process mistakes were made, I am sorry and I will correct them," Buyer said.

We would have asked more questions but Buyer had to rush out to a Congressional meeting.

After our interview, a Foundation spokesman emailed us to fill in the blank on where the $25,000 to start Buyer's Foundation came from: the pharmaceutical lobby PhRMA.

As for awarding scholarships--the whole point of Foundation-- they say they're waiting until they raise a million dollars and are self-sustaining.
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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.

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