'Polite' staff provided controversial fund-raiser access to first lady's office Mrs. Clinton says she probably didn't solicit money in White House

March 11, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to explain why a controversial Chinese-American fund raiser had such easy access to her suite of offices, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday she assumed her staff was merely being polite in ushering him in.

Clinton also echoed the president's words of last week, saying she did not recall making any fund-raising phone calls from her office in the White House but "I'm not going to say absolutely never."

In her first extended remarks on the burgeoning fund-raising scandal, Clinton said repeatedly she did not know and could only speculate on why California businessman and Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung was admitted to her office so frequently.

"My staff is a polite and courteous group, and certainly has, over the last four years, been very willing to be courteous to people who came into the White House.

"The only way I can explain it is, that's what they thought they were doing -- is being courteous," she said, choosing her words carefully.

Chung made at least 50 visits to the White House since 1994; 21 of those were cleared by the first lady's staff. Much of the money Chung raised for the Democratic Party was returned because the party could not identify its source.

Clinton invited reporters to the White House to discuss the administration's education initiatives, but questions inevitably wandered into fund raising.

On one occasion, Chung gave a $50,000 check to the first lady's chief of staff, Margaret A. Williams, who forwarded the contribution to the Democratic Party.

That transaction has raised questions in light of legal prohibitions against soliciting or receiving political contributions in government buildings.

Clinton said that, in retrospect, it would have been better for Williams to have refused to accept the check and instead told Chung to mail it or take it to the Democratic National Committee himself.

Although she defended her aide's actions as appropriate and legal, she said, her office would "be much more careful" in its future dealings with political guests.

The first lady also defended the president's practice of inviting hundreds of people, many of them major Democratic contributors, to stay overnight at the White House, saying her "gregarious and truly outgoing" husband wanted to share the historic mansion with "as many people as possible."

Pub Date: 3/11/97

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