Using White House for donors 'appropriate,' Clinton insists Experts are divided over whether law on donations was broken

February 27, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton defended yesterday the propriety of White House-based fund-raising methods as "entirely appropriate." But the controversy over invitations to the Lincoln Bedroom and White House fund-raising "coffees" continued to swirl.

On Capitol Hill, six Republicans pushed a measure that would bar the use of the White House and other executive branch buildings to reward political donors.

"Our national monuments and public buildings belong to the taxpayers of the United States and not to any political party or individual," said Rep. Jon D. Fox, a Pennsylvania Republican. "Political fund raising at these sites is wrong and demeans those symbols in the minds of the American people."

In light of White House documents released Tuesday, several experts in campaign finance law questioned whether the president and his aides had obeyed the spirit or even the letter of the law, which bars political fund raising in the White House or on other federal property.

Those documents, drawn from the files of Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy chief of staff, show that Clinton himself was closely involved in devising ways to bring big donors to the White House. One note -- in Clinton's handwriting -- shows that he encouraged the idea of thanking contributors of $50,000 or $100,000 by inviting them to spend a night.

Nothing wrong with that, Republican lawyers conceded yesterday. The problem, they say, is when the White House is used as a prop for continuous, organized fund-raising.

"It seems to me that the memo in Clinton's own handwriting setting this up is the smoking gun," said Ben Ginsberg, a former general counsel of the Republican National Committee. "This memo shows the derivation of this unprecedented fund-raising operation of selling the president's time and body to the highest bidders."

C. Boyden Gray, who served as White House counsel to President George Bush, used the same phrase -- "smoking gun" -- in reference to other memos in the documents that described the coffees as fund-raisers.

"I think it is improper," Gray said. "And courts do infer from the way people talk about their own policies what their true intent was."

Until this week, White House aides have characterized the 98 White House "coffees" held by Clinton and Vice President Al Gore in 1995 and 1996 as merely ways for the president to interact with business executives, ethnic leaders and others.

$500,000 goal

But the documents released Tuesday showed that Ickes and other top aides routinely referred to the coffees as fund-raisers. The memos also show that the staff discussed the estimated take from each coffee -- $350,000 for one, $500,000 for another.

Clinton defended their legality yesterday, saying his staff had received precise legal guidance about what could and could not occur in the White House.

"We got strict legal advice about what the rules were, and everyone involved knew what the rules were," Clinton, looking weary, told reporters.

"Did we hope that the people that came there would support me, particularly after we got into a political season when we were doing this? Of course we did. But there was no solicitation at the White House, and the guidelines made clear that there was to be no price tag on the events."

Several legal scholars sided with the president on this point, including some knowledgeable Republicans who argued that so long as a direct solicitation for money did not take place inside the White House and so long as no money actually changed hands there, the law was followed.

No violation

"From what I've seen of the facts and the explanation, they don't seem to have violated the law against soliciting or receiving funds in a federal building," said Jan Baran, a lawyer who is one of the top Republican experts on campaign law.

Baran said the Ickes memos do raise other legal questions.

One was whether White House resources and personnel were being used "improperly" -- namely on partisan politics.

A second was whether Clinton's campaign and White House staff had ignored the laws about soliciting contributions from foreign nationals, several of whom attended the coffees.

But Baran agreed with the contention made this week by Mike McCurry, the White House press secretary, that ultimately a president has a right to visit with his supporters. And Baran disputed the notion that Congress could pass a law barring such contacts.

"I don't think it's humanly possible to pass a law making it illegal for a president to meet a contributor," he said.

Responsibility for enforcing the law regarding raising money on government property falls to the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department, which has generally taken the approach that only direct fund raising is prohibited.

Gray area

The Justice Department is less inclined to meddle in the gray area of presidents who mix with contributors inside the White House, say two former Federal Elections Commission officials.

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