TAMPA - -- Mel Sembler of St. Petersburg, a Republican fundraiser and former ambassador, is chairman of the legal defense fund for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, former chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney.
Libby faces federal charges in connection with the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame.
A longtime political supporter of Cheney, Sembler was recruited to join the effort by Barbara Comstock, a Washington lawyer and friend of Libby, Comstock said.
Sembler will head what Comstock called "a distinguished and bipartisan group of friends, colleagues and former government officials" who have formed the Libby Legal Defense Trust.
She said the group aims to raise millions of dollars, but there is no specific goal -- only "the amount he needs to defend his good name."
Sembler is a developer and longtime fundraiser for Republican candidates in Florida and nationwide.
He could not be reached for comment.
Sembler "holds Scooter in high esteem as many members of the committee have," Comstock said. "We're confident that Scooter will be exonerated. He has declared he's innocent."
She said the committee, which still is adding members, includes former Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, former presidential candidate Steve Forbes, former Sens. Fred Thompson and Alan Simpson, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp.
Comstock said the group is "bipartisan" because two members, former CIA Director Jim Woolsey and former Ambassador Dennis Ross, have held appointments in Democratic as well as Republican administrations.
Libby often has been described as Cheney's top aide and right-hand man, and Sembler is a longtime admirer of Cheney.
Sembler backed Cheney as the Republican nominee for president in 1996, but Cheney dropped out of that race. In 2000, Sembler said in an interview that he felt vindicated and "ecstatic" when George W. Bush made Cheney his running mate.
Sembler was one of the chief fundraisers in the 1988 campaign of former President Bush, who then appointed him ambassador to Australia. He later became finance chairman for the national Republican Party, and the current President Bush named him ambassador to Italy.
In recent years, particularly when Sembler was out of the country, his son Brent Sembler has become more active in politics and is part of the fundraising team for Attorney General Charlie Crist's campaign for governor.
Comstock said the defense fund is up and running and has received contributions.
She said the amount would not be made public. "It's a private trust fund for a private individual and we haven't disclosed that."
Comstock, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Justice Department under former Attorney General John Ashcroft, said she got involved because at the time of the indictment, she was working for Libby's lawyers.