Clinton discounts influence of money President says policy was not affected by foreign campaign gifts

November 09, 1996|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton maintained yesterday that there was nothing improper about the hefty political contributions his party has raised from foreign sources and that the money had never influenced his administration's foreign policy.

"I can tell you categorically that there was no influence," Clinton said in an hourlong White House news conference, his first since June.

Last night, hours after the news conference, Attorney General Janet Reno issued a statement rejecting a request from the citizens' lobbying group Common Cause to appoint a special prosecutor to look into possible improprieties in 1996 campaign fund-raising.

The president, speaking with reporters three days after his decisive re-election, also took the opportunity to name Erskine B. Bowles, a North Carolina businessman, as his new chief of staff, replacing Leon E. Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants and longtime congressman who is heading back home to California.

Clinton said he believes the message sent by voters in 1996 is that they are put off by partisan bickering and instead want compromise and middle-ground solutions to the nation's problems.

"On Tuesday our people voted for the ideas of the vital American center," he said.

The president said he was inviting congressional leaders to meet with him at the White House next week to try to reach a meeting of the minds on how to balance the federal budget, which paralyzed Washington last year when the two parties pushed competing budget priorities.

Yesterday, Clinton said the most important issue to him was education, but he added, "I will meet them halfway."

Grasping an issue he did not make a priority in his first term, Clinton also said the moment was right -- and the public would demand -- campaign finance reform.

"We clearly have a unique moment of opportunity now, when the public and you in the press are focused on this issue," he said.

"Now is the time to seize it, before the moment fades. The American people will be watching to see whether our deeds match our words."

Questions about 'soft money'

This issue burst to the fore in the waning weeks of the campaign. At the time, questions were raised in the media about huge contributions raised under a loophole called "soft money."

These contributions skirt the restrictions on donations to individual campaigns by going through the Democratic National Committee or various state party organizations instead of directly to the campaigns.

The first revelation was that an Indonesian landscaper living in Virginia with ties to the Lippo Group, an Indonesian conglomerate, had contributed $450,000 to the Democratic National Committee for use in the 1996 campaign.

After Lippo bought a bank in Little Rock in the mid-1980s, James Riady, son of the man who controls the company, was sent to Arkansas. Among those he befriended were the Clintons, the president conceded yesterday.

The DNC maintains that the $450,000 gift was legal, although Republicans disagree.

Another soft-money contribution of $250,000 from a South Korean company was returned by the DNC after it became public.

Those contributions, and many others, including a portion of the $140,000 raised at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, were solicited for the Democrats by a fund-raiser named John Huang.

A Chinese-born banker, Huang was appointed as a Commerce Department official by the president and was later sent over to the Democratic National Committee.

Huang formerly worked for Lippo, too, and as with James Riady, his connection to the Democrats seems to be Clinton. The president said yesterday that he met Huang on a trade mission to Taiwan when he was governor of Arkansas.

Asked yesterday about the nature of his relationship with the two, Clinton simply recounted when he had met them and said, "So I have known both James Riady and his wife, and John Huang and his wife, for several years."

Deflecting criticism

Yesterday, the president sought to draw a distinction between money raised by his campaign and money raised by the DNC. Initially, he even used the pronouns "they" and "them" when referring to DNC officials. When pressed, however, the president acknowledged some responsibility for the party's fund-raising practices, adding, "I am the titular head of the Democratic Party."

Clinton also sought to deflect criticism by saying that if only "10 or 20 or 30" contributions had to be returned because they were tainted, that it wasn't so serious.

"The Democratic Party received over a million different contributions in two years," he said.

Ellen Miller, head of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks such donations, said this claim is absurd.

"What's he talking about -- people who gave $5?" she said. "The questions are about these big givers. You're talking about 100 people, 200 at the most. If he says they can't track them, well, I've got news for him: We track 'em."

Other subjects covered in the news conference included:

* Future Cabinet and White House appointments.

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