Fred Wertheimer, the former president of Common Cause and a moral icon to some when it comes to defining the straight-and-narrow way of money and politics, describes fundraising by the Clinton administration and the Democratic National Committee as "a systematic misuse of the White House." He called the alleged cash-for-access-to-the-president scheme "unprecedented." Because Mr. Wertheimer has been a critic of fund-raising by Republicans and Democrats, his description carries more weight than the usual partisan complaints.
Hundreds of pages of new documents show that President Clinton participated in 71 "coffees" with corporate donors and supporters. Hillary Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and Mrs. Gore attended 32 more coffees at the White House with big donors and Democratic fundraisers.
Prior to the release of the documents, the administration had called these gatherings mundane and claimed no fundraising took place. Technically, there may have been no appeal for money during the meetings, but the documents reveal that those who gained access to the president coughed up $6.5 million to his reelection campaign, and at least $600,000 of that amount was given shortly after the visits.
Other papers show that former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes instructed aides to devise plans to win the support of Asian-Americans, Hispanics, blacks, and other ethnic groups. Republicans were frequently demonized at such gatherings, especially when the audience was black. "College-educated black professionals have a different perspective than black 'blue-collar' workers," said one of the papers. "Blacks in rural areas think differently than blacks in urban areas." Any Republican who said that would be labeled a racist.
The strategy document for winning Asian votes was written by John Huang, a central figure in the growing fundraising scandal.
White House special associate counsel Lanny Davis said those involved in the project to target ethnic voters contributed their time over and above the 40-hour work week and thus did not violate the Hatch Act. That will bear looking into, as will the flipping and flopping done by Mr. Gore over his visit to a California Buddhist Temple, an event that raised $140,000 for the party. At first Mr. Gore denied knowing of any fundraising at the temple, then acknowledged it had occurred, but now says, "I did not know that it was a fundraiser."
The president's nominee for secretary of labor, Alexis Herman, sat in on five of the coffees. She was put in charge of Mr. Ickes's special project to attract minorities to vote for the president, which involved substantial fundraising activity. The public-interest group Judicial Watch released a video deposition from James Hackney, counsel to the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, in which he says Ms. Herman coordinated White House briefings for participants in Commerce Department trade meetings, virtually all of which carried big contributors on foreign missions. White House officials rejected the implication of a quid pro quo.
The documents reveal that other participants in the coffee meetings with the president included some of the nation's most prominent bankers and at least one senior banking regulator, the Treasury secretary, and the top fund-raiser for the Democratic Party. If these meetings weren't about raising campaign contributions, why did the fund-raiser attend? While meetings between any president and potential donors are common in an election year, it is not common for such events to be organized by a political party nor for those who regulate an industry to be present at such gatherings.
Republicans will have a more difficult time investigating these matters than in the first Clinton term because the president is conducting a preemptive strike in bipartisanship. From his calling for a volunteerism summit to be co-chaired by former President George Bush and Colin Powell, to his proposed reduction in the increase in Medicare spending (for which he and the Democrats demonized Republicans during the campaign), Mr. Clinton is trying to build a rosy public-relations hedge around himself in case the scandals become too much even for a public largely anesthetized by his charm. Last week, he pledged to improve the quality of our food. Now that he no longer needs to run again, he says he'll stop taking "soft money" campaign contributions if Republicans do the same.
No matter how difficult the task, Congress must investigate every misuse, abuse and excuse in the White House fundraising debacle.
copyright 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate