Campaign probe puts Gore in unflattering light Investigation by Congress seen as possibly harmful to 2000 presidential bid

September 06, 1997|By Carl Cannon and Mark Matthews | Carl Cannon and Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER PAUL WEST CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore slogged through a difficult week in which his conduct during the 1996 election campaign was examined in a light that even White House officials conceded was unflattering.

While the world's attention was focused on Princess Diana's tragic death, Gore's loyalists were trying to weather revelations they fear could harm his expected presidential campaign in 2000.

"That's what this is really all about -- to us and to the Republicans," said one top White House attorney.

On Capitol Hill, Republican senators probing possible 1996 campaign abuses elicited testimony from three Buddhist nuns that they shredded documents relating to apparently laundered campaign contributions at a controversial -- and possibly illegal -- Gore campaign event at a Southern California temple.

Yesterday, those Republican lawmakers all but accused Gore of lying about his role in the event. Sen. Don Nickles said White House documents proved that members of Gore's staff were aware that the long-planned event was a fund-raiser and that Gore must have known.

"I don't see how you can come to a different conclusion," the Oklahoma Republican said during a second day of hearings into the April 1996 luncheon at the Hsi Lai Temple near Los Angeles.

Gore's insistence that he was unaware at the time that it was a political fund-raiser "just really defies credibility," Nickles said.

Democrats on the investigating committee defended the vice president -- and pointed out that no one had accused Gore of knowing about the irregularities surrounding the temple's campaign contributions. Appearing in a campaign-style swing yesterday through New Hampshire, Gore tried to duck reporters' questions about the 1996 campaign.

Gore did say, during an interview with WMUR-TV in Manchester, N.H., that he is "confident that when the probes are completed, it will be fully shown that what I did was legal and appropriate, and, of course, we're cooperating fully with the review."

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Gore promoted a Baltimore firm seeking a multimillion-dollar overseas contract in a letter to Indonesia's vice president written 10 weeks before the company contributed $15,000 to the Democratic National Committee.

Gore's April 11, 1995, letter to Indonesian Vice President Try Sutrisno described the firm, Ellicott Machine Corp. International, as "a leading American company" and "a dependable supplier of dredging equipment" to Indonesia for more than 40 years.

The letter has drawn the attention of investigators at the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is holding hearings on fund-raising abuses.

Peter Bowe, Ellicott's president, said yesterday that no investigators had contacted him and denied that the contribution was made in response to Gore's lobbying efforts for the firm.

"There was no quid pro quo," Bowe said.

Ellicott contributes to the DNC because "we're supportive of administration efforts to promote exports," he said.

Ellicott did not win the contract for the project that Gore's letter referred to.

But the year before, the company sold $21 million in dredging equipment to Indonesia with the help of special government-subsidized financing arranged through the Export-Import Bank.

During the past several years, Ellicott has obtained millions of dollars worth of business overseas with help from high-level Clinton administration officials and the Maryland state government.

Bowe has credited the administration for the 1994 Indonesia contract and a separate, $11 million contract with Vietnam. He said he didn't recall exactly how the Gore letter came about but said he might have discussed it with Gore staffers, DNC officials or both.

Increased attention also shifted this week to fund-raising calls made last year by the vice president to a host of big Democratic donors, including Baltimore Orioles principal owner Peter Angelos.

Republicans have called for Attorney General Janet Reno to seek a special prosecutor to probe the Democrats' 1996 fund-raising methods in general -- and Gore's phone solicitations in particular.

Reno has denied such requests, asserting that large "soft-money" donations are not covered under federal campaign finance laws.

This week, it was reported that some of the money raised by Gore over the telephone was designated by the Democrats as "hard money," meaning it was used directly for the Clinton-Gore re-election effort -- and prompting Reno to see whether this revelation necessitates appointment of a special counsel.

Angelos has maintained that he doesn't remember a specific solicitation from the vice president. White House records reveal that his office received a 4 1/2 -minute phone call from the vice president's phone line on April 26 and that he contributed $100,000 less than two weeks later.

Angelos does not quarrel with that information but says he remembers the conversation only "vaguely."

"I don't recall being solicited for a contribution," he added.

The Orioles' owner said that he'd been called recently by an investigator with the Senate committee probing Democratic fund-raising but that no one from the Justice Department or the FBI had contacted him. If hard money was used from his contribution, he said, it was done without his knowledge or consent.

"My contribution, and I made this clear when I made it, was for party support, to support the work of the Democratic Party -- not for any specific candidate's campaign," he said.

Pub Date: 9/06/97

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