A Litany Of Accusations...
Step Right Up
Bill Clinton wants to stay aloof from the excesses of Democratic fund raising. But it looks as if he was gung ho all the way
By Richard Lacayo
(TIME, March 10) -- Among the latest glimpses of the Clinton White House, it's hard to pick the weirdest. You can't do better than the image of the President himself clamoring to stuff the White House bedrooms with big contributors. Then again there is the episode in which a deputy chief of staff gingerly points out that Clinton's many fund-raising coffees may make it necessary to temporarily cut short those troublesome government duties like his daily briefings by advisers. All the same, for sheer madcap ingenuity, nothing beats the unsigned memo suggesting ways to reach "our very aggressive goal of $40 million." The ways? Offer donors seats on Air Force One and Two. Put them at the table at presidential dinners. Get them into that maximum lunchroom, the White House mess. Never let it be said that only Republicans want to privatize government.
The White House mess, indeed. There comes a moment in every political scandal when the fog starts to clear. In the intricate matter that is Democratic fund raising, the moment is now. For much of that we can thank Harold Ickes. In response to a request from congressional investigators, Ickes has been turning over thousands of pages of documents from his three years as Clinton's deputy chief of staff, the job he left in January, thus forcing the White House to release them before they leak. While most appear to be harmless to the White House, a few priceless pages explode the President's claim that he was aloof from the fund-raising shenanigans of Campaign '96.
For weeks Clinton has insisted that any excesses were the fault of misguided staff members at the Democratic National Committee. But the Ickes papers show the President deeply in synch with the whole fevered enterprise. The best proof is his jottings on a proposal put before him by Terry McAuliffe, his chief fund raiser, in January 1995, just as the G.O.P. congressional majority was settling in. McAuliffe, who wanted to reward old party supporters and "energize" prospective ones, suggested that the White House offer jogging, golf or coffee with the President. He also named 10 big Democratic Party supporters who might be the first to jog, golf or coffee. Clinton, who leaped on the idea as if it were the last cupcake on the dessert cart, scribbled in further instructions: "Get other names at 100,000 or more, 50,000 or more...Ready to start overnights right away."
Clinton didn't invent the White House sleepover. Among the 273 visitors who brought their pajamas during the Bush Administration, a few were G.O.P. donors. Others were supporters such as Rush Limbaugh, a man so crucial that when he arrived in June 1992, Bush even carried his bags. But like Henry Ford, Clinton took an existing idea and perfected its mass production. In the Clinton White House, 938 guests trooped through. They included the famous, like Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg and Billy Graham, and the relatively obscure, including numerous personal friends of the Clintons and Chelsea. But at least a third of them were moved to make donations to the party before or after their stayovers, totaling $10 million in all, according to the New York Times.
In January 1996 there was another memo to Ickes and chief of staff Leon Panetta. This one, from Evelyn Lieberman, another deputy chief of staff, urged more coffees. In 1995 and '96 there would be a total of 103, several in a good week-- enough to produce mild caffeine overload and $27 million. But the really notable part of that memo was the warning by Lieberman that during two weeks of intense activity, "staff who routinely brief the President will be asked to be flexible during this period and accept that their briefings may be considerably truncated or eliminated."
Bill Clinton has never been averse to the unsightly money business of politics. Even in college he had a card file of friends that he later used to solicit funds for his first congressional campaign. Now he insists that "the White House was not for sale." He says that D.N.C. guidelines "made clear that there was to be no price tag on the events." But a different story keeps popping up all around him. In the Los Angeles Times, an anonymous Democratic fund raiser insisted that D.N.C. finance chairman Marvin Rosen simply told fund raisers to tell donors that $50,000 would get them into a White House coffee. Another memo in the Ickes documents, this one signed by Peter Knight, the President's campaign manager, calculates that $500,000 could be expected from a forthcoming White House coffee for 10 Texas donors, which he calls a "fund raiser." All 10 were hit in the weeks that followed but gave only $132,800.
The intense money game was played by Clinton in a way that gave hospitality a bad name. The speedy turnover in the Lincoln Bedroom, the java huddles with big donors, the shared stretches on Clinton's jogging route reduced the message of the presidency to "Attention, K Mart shoppers." But they also put serious pressure on federal campaign-finance laws. Now it only remains to be determined whether the pressure reached the breaking point. Though nothing made public so far is evidence that Clinton or Vice President Al Gore asked for money in the White House, which could have been illegal, TIME has learned that congressional investigators are looking into that possibility.
There are also episodes outside the White House that look suspiciously as though fund raisers tried to lure special interests with the prospect of spending time with officials who could affect their businesses. One was a $10,000-a-plate dinner attended by Clinton last year at the mansion of Democratic pitchman William Brandt, outside Chicago. It raked in more than $1 million for the D.N.C. The guests included bankruptcy lawyers and bankers. Also present was Brady Williamson, whom Clinton had just appointed chairman of a commission that will file a report later this year recommending changes to bankruptcy law.
Federal law forbids most government appointees from using their titles in connection with their appearance at political fund-raising events. Williamson says he was there as a private citizen. But several banking-industry invitees complained that Brandt told them that Williamson would be there and that it would be a good opportunity to voice their views on the new bankruptcy law. In a statement last week to Senator Charles Grassley, David Thompson of First Chicago said Brandt told him the dinner would honor Williamson. "If [Brandt] was doing it, it was against my wishes and the directions of the White House counsel," says Williamson. Brandt summed up the influence-selling charges as "all garbage."
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