1994 memo urges perks for donors Democratic official proposed trips, meals for wealthy backers

DNC returns $1.5 million

Republicans point to lax commitment to law by Clinton team

March 01, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- A 1994 memorandum to a Democratic Party official proposed that the White House offer such perks as trips on Air Force One and seats at private dinners to induce wealthy campaign donors to give more money.

The memo, whose author was not identified, was among the files of Harold M. Ickes, a former deputy White House chief of staff who helped coordinate President Clinton's re-election effort. Ickes has released his files to congressional investigators who are looking into political fund-raising abuses.

The release of the memorandum was the latest development in a growing controversy over Democratic fund raising during Clinton's first term. It came on a day when the Democratic National Committee returned an additional $1.5 million in large donations that were deemed either illegal or "inappropriate." That brought the total contributions from wealthy donors that have been returned to nearly $3 million, most of it apparently in the form of unlawful gifts from foreign sources or companies with foreign ties.

Included in the donations the Democrats just returned is $64,000 of the $167,000 raised a year ago at a fund-raiser held in a Buddhist temple in Southern California. Vice President Al Gore was the temple's guest of honor that day. Previously, the DNC had returned only $10,000 of that money.

"It is clear that we did not monitor the contribution process adequately enough in the recent past," said the Democratic Party's new general chairman, Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado. "The DNC made mistakes, and we put in place a thorough and rigorous monitoring system that will prevent those kinds of problems in the future."

During a sometimes contentious news conference, Romer HTC accused Republicans of having committed fund-raising sins that were worse than what the Democrats did. Romer characterized the Democrats' excesses not in terms of ethical failures on their part, but rather as being symptomatic of a "system that is broken."

"If you require politicians to raise the kind of money they're being asked to raise, you've got to give them some slack," Romer said.

In a rambling description of the pitfalls of hobnobbing with contributors, the new Democratic chairman insisted that there was no inherent conflict when a politician grants a donor a private audience, even in a setting as intimate as a golf game.

Romer described this as bestowing "face time."

"That's face time, and that's also a perk," Romer said, adding that it was "a whole lot better" that politicians "reward" their donors "with perks rather than policies." But Romer conceded flatly that it was wrong to grant donors places on foreign trade missions and that no president should "price people in and out of the White House."

This is precisely what critics say it appears Clinton has been doing. The latest memo in the Ickes file details a 10-point plan to reward wealthy donors with access to the president at coveted private events. The author of the document said the perks were intended "to reach our very aggressive goal of $40 million."

Pointing to the memo, many Republicans say the problem isn't )) the existence of ever-widening loopholes in campaign-finance laws, but rather a lax commitment by the Clinton team to follow the law.

"This is not a 'bipartisan problem requiring a bipartisan solution,' as the Democrat leadership would have the American people believe," Jim Nicholson, the Republican national chairman, said in a written statement. "It is a serious Democrat Party and White House problem, and Governor Romer does a disservice when he attempts to suggest otherwise. I say to Democrats: Don't try to change the subject. Just follow the law."

The release of the Ickes memo, coupled with the Democratic Party's return of the $3 million, served once again to put the president and White House officials on the defensive on the issue of campaign fund raising.

At a White House ceremony to commemorate the kickoff of regulations to curb teen-age smoking, Clinton ducked out by a rear door rather than take questions from reporters. Later, Mike McCurry, the president's spokesman, put out a terse statement responding to the release of the Democratic memo:

"The president and the White House believe [Democratic Party officials] are doing the appropriate thing to correct any mistakes that they have identified and to return contributions they should not have accepted and to implement new procedures that will address the shortcomings the president himself has identified, taken responsibility for and asked to be corrected."

The Ickes memo remained the most intriguing development of the day, however. It was sent, apparently in spring 1994, to Martha Phipps, a deputy to the Democratic national chairman at the time, David Wilhelm.

The document was released by Ickes, who turned over some 600 pages of campaign-related documents to a House oversight committee this week.

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