47 Marylanders went to White House coffees In 2 years, donors gave Democrats $1.8 million

February 28, 1997|By Paul West and Susan Baer | Paul West and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Maryland Democrats who attended White House coffees with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore over the past two years donated more than $1.8 million to the party and the Clinton-Gore re-election campaign, according to White House documents and Federal Election Commission records.

The campaign contributions were made, in many cases, close to the time the donors visited the White House. The Maryland donations represent a chunk of the $27 million total raised from all 98 coffees. The coffees have become controversial because of the appearance that they were used to reward donors with access to the president and to encourage them to give more.

In all, at least 47 Marylanders, a cross-section of the state's politically connected business leadership, attended one or more coffees. The small group discussions, which typically lasted one hour or longer, were held in the White House Map Room or at the Old Executive Office Building next door. Depending on the day, the hosts were Clinton, Gore or both.

By far, the leading Maryland donor at the coffees was Dr. Robert N. Elkins of Ellicott City, who gave the Democrats a total of $572,500, personally and through his company, Integrated Health Services Inc. of Owings Mills.

In documents released earlier this month by the White House, Elkins was listed as an invitee at three coffees with the president in December 1995 and January 1996. During those two months alone, Elkins and IHS contributed a total of $199,000.

Elkins would not take a reporter's calls inquiring about the coffees, saying, through a secretary, "No comment."

Clinton and party officials have insisted that no one was solicited for money at the White House coffees, which would be a violation of a federal law that bars fund-raising on government property.

But Clinton has acknowledged that Democrats hoped that those who were invited would contribute. And it has been reported that some Democratic fund-raisers have acknowledged that they dangled invitations to meet with the president as an inducement for donors to contribute up to $50,000.

By law, individuals may donate no more than $1,000 to an individual candidate. But unlimited personal, corporate and union donations -- so-called "soft money" -- may be given to political parties.

$122 million in 'soft money'

The Justice Department and congressional committees are investigating methods used by the Democrats to raise more than $122 million in "soft money" donations for the 1996 campaign. The contributions were used to pay for a TV advertising blitz that was credited with helping Clinton win re-election.

Earlier this month, the Clinton administration released the names of hundreds of people who were invited to White House coffees in 1995 and 1996.

Among them was William B. Dockser, a Bethesda lawyer and real estate investor, who attended three coffees between August 1995 and March 1996 -- one with Clinton, one with Gore, one with both -- and contributed $100,000 to the party in those two years.

"It was very obvious, if you had been a contributor, that's kind of why you were being called," Dockser said.

Dockser, a longtime Democratic contributor, insisted that he was never told that the meetings with Clinton and Gore were contingent upon donations. And he said he was never solicited for money at the sessions. But FEC records show that his coffee attendance often preceded substantial donations.

Two days after attending an Aug. 8, 1995, coffee with Clinton and Gore, Dockser gave $17,000 to the party. A Jan. 26, 1996, coffee with Clinton was followed, less than three weeks later, by $25,000 in contributions. And a March 29, 1996 coffee with Gore was followed, again within three weeks, by a $15,000 donation.

Getting the president's ear

At one coffee, Dockser said he had the president's ear for 10 to 15 minutes, and pressed his case for capital gains tax cuts as well as for a less onerous tax for owners of subsidized housing, such as himself, in the sale of property.

"The president was definitely interested," Dockser said of the housing issue. "He asked Gore to follow up on the issues -- and Gore did. He and I exchanged letters. He contacted [the Department of Housing and Urban Development] to get HUD's position, and one of the assistant secretaries of the department wrote me a letter."

Dockser said it was the department's standard letter on the issue, and that, as far as he knows, no new action has been taken as a result of Gore's intervention.

Other coffee guests were Cynthia and Tom Schneider of Sandy Spring, who privately donated $5,950, but, as longtime Clinton friends, have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the Clinton-Gore campaigns.

In July 1995, for example, the Schneiders generated $400,000 at a fund-raiser at their house that Clinton attended. And last spring, they raised "a significant amount of money," Mrs. Schneider said, for a Democratic gala.

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