DNC fund-raising controversy smells awfully fishy

November 29, 1996|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The controversy over the fund-raising practices of the Democratic National Committee is beginning to follow a familiar pattern. With unsolicited help from the press, the Democrats are discovering that -- oops! -- more and more foreign donors have made contributions that have to be returned.

At this point, the total returned already has exceeded $1 million, which may be chicken feed when weighed against the total raised by the DNC, but is enough to make you wonder if anyone there was paying attention.

We are supposed to believe that contributions of hundreds of thousands of dollars from these givers never raised any warning signals with DNC officials about their intentions. We are supposed to assume, apparently, that these were simply people who very much wanted to see President Clinton win a second term but had no direct stake in his success.

A bad aroma

Meanwhile, the White House has made the situation more

politically damaging by forcing the information to be squeezed out, one revelation after another. Before the election we were told, for example, that Mr. Clinton had only "social" conversations in White House meetings with big contributors from Indonesia.

Then in a post-election interview with the New York Times -- granted on a Friday, always the preferred time for minimizing press attention -- the president allowed that there was some discussion of policy questions but nothing different from many such discussions with many people during Mr. Clinton's stewardship.

There is, of course, nothing illegal or necessarily even questionable about the president discussing things like policy toward China with individual citizens. And there is no evidence so far of a quid pro quo -- some action by the president that might have been directly beneficial to those big contributors.

And in this case it is also true that the Indonesian businessman with whom the president was discussing policy questions was someone he had known back in Arkansas and with whom he presumably had enjoyed similar discussions then.

But this is not the whole story, by any means. There are also all the questions about the dozens, scores even, of telephone calls between various contributors and John Huang while he was serving in the Commerce Department and then as a fund-raiser for the DNC. These, too, may have been totally routine and proper, but you have to wonder.

That, after all, is precisely the point. There may be totally innocent explanations for all the contributions and conversations back and forth. Everyone may have been interested in good government. But the handling of the controversy has been so clumsy that it smells to high heaven.

The Republicans, predictably, are smelling blood. They are demanding further disclosure of DNC finances and perhaps even another special prosecutor to get at the truth. And they are planning their own investigations in Congress. They already know that the initial disclosures alone raised serious questions in the minds of voters late in the campaign, perhaps enough to have closed the gap between Mr. Clinton and Bob Dole by several points over the last week.

Clinton must come clean

Clinton's response, however, has been essentially strategic and political -- most notably, his call for a bipartisan approach to reforming the campaign finance system. As a fig leaf, it is pretty thin stuff. No one doubts that the present system is a disgrace, one that among other things has permitted these huge piles of "soft money" to be amassed by both parties, some from these questionable foreign contributors.

But before the president can have any credibility in seeking a long-term solution, his administration and his party have to come clean on the money from Indonesia and Thailand and Taiwan and wherever. And, unlike the Whitewater issue, this one involves things that happened here after he took office. This is not ancient history.

The president has been complaining that he is being prejudged by some in the press and that he is the target of partisan investigations by Kenneth Starr and congressional committees. He has some justification, because the special prosecutor has gone far beyond his original charter to poke into such things as the financing of Mr. Clinton's gubernatorial campaign in 1990.

But some of these things have to be resolved. Americans are entitled to know whether some foreign businessman enjoyed extraordinary influence based on his contributions to the DNC. It's no time for foot-dragging by the White House, again.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/29/96

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