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A Secret Cash Link

A White House operation that tracked donors was extensive, top secret and pushed by the First Lady

By Michael Weisskopf


(TIME, February 3) -- By the time Democratic fund raisers put the bite on insurance tycoon Walter Kaye, he had already been softened up. There was the holiday card from President Clinton's re-election campaign and the invitation to a White House Christmas party, not to mention the Executive Mansion reception for New Yorkers, the dinner for the most generous Democratic benefactors and a gathering of the Hillary Rodham Clinton Fan Club.

The White House courtship of Kaye was never casual. While disguised as a social minuet, it was really part of a high-tech operation situated not far from the Oval Office and used to track and nurture potential donors to the President's re-election effort. Kaye's name was entered into a secret White House database under the designation "major contributor," a status befitting the $137,000 he gave to the Democratic cause last campaign. The filing system, dubbed WhoDB for White House Office Data Base, was used by Clinton's campaign team to stay on top of donors and provide them with enough emoluments to keep them feeding the party's money machine. When a state dinner was being planned, WhoDB was consulted for the guest list. It was tapped again to assure friendly airport crowds to welcome Air Force One when the President traveled.

White House officials say WhoDB is little more than a catalog of presidential supporters and visitors. But as a Rolodex, it is one with attitude. Many of the system's 355,000 names were culled from Democratic National Committee donor lists, and they were obviously entered with follow-up in mind. Have a pet project or nickname? WhoDB knows it, along with birthdays and fax numbers. Even special dietary needs were logged in to cater to donors at future events. "If people who give money are treated with social graces and made to feel they're appreciated, they'll come right back and give the next time," said Truman Arnold, a Texas oilman who served as the D.N.C. finance chairman for most of 1995.

Arnold said WhoDB helped him ensure that major donors were accorded a fair share of presidential perks, a reward system of Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers, foreign trips and government postings that helped the party hit a D.N.C. fund-raising record of $125 million last year. Included in the database was a special category for recipients of Kennedy Center tickets, personal notes from Clinton, D.N.C. trinkets and invitations to play tennis, bowl or watch a movie at the White House. "I've never felt deserted," Kaye said with understatement.

WhoDB and its basic features were first disclosed last June by the Washington Times, but new details of the database's origin, scope and use have emerged in White House documents obtained by TIME. The papers show that the Clintons strenuously pushed for creation of the software, directing an aide to make it her "top priority." The First Lady was described as especially eager to get the names of early 1992 presidential supporters so they could be invited to social affairs before the next election.

The database effort was started in late 1993 under the direction of Marsha Scott, a deputy presidential assistant. She was as guarded as the architect of a Pentagon "black project," working in a locked room of an Old Executive Office Building suite with a private entrance. In a confidential 1994 memo to Hillary Clinton, she argued against competitive bids for the system because they would throw it "open to public scrutiny and inquiry." The database was considered so sensitive that as few as three people were originally expected to have full access to it.

Representative David McIntosh, the Indiana Republican who heads a congressional probe into WhoDB, said the use of a taxpayer-funded database--whose cost was estimated by the Administration to run as high as $1.7 million--raises ethical questions about the extent to which the White House was used as a base for campaign operations. "This is something you'd expect to find at the D.N.C., not the White House," said McIntosh. Even the White House had trouble defining the line between the social and political use of WhoDB. Associate counsel Cheryl Mills set out ground rules in a January 1994 memo: only data used by the President in his official capacity could be entered. Once put in, they became government property that could not be used for partisan purposes. But within months, according to notes of a meeting, then deputy chief of staff Erskine Bowles was asking if the software could be deployed in the 1996 campaign. Told no, he nonetheless pressed for an interim report of 1992 early supporters and White House events they attended, apparently so he could draw them into the next campaign.

One bureaucrat, Franklin S. Reeder of the Office of Administration, made a valiant effort to keep at least the WhoDB Christmas card list "pure" by making sure it was beyond the reach of party fund raisers. But Reeder lost. Records show that more than 65,000 cards were sent to D.N.C. and Clinton campaign donors, perhaps in the hope they would send back cash.

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