Strange that Gore could work so hard and still be so out of the loop

September 08, 1997|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- For weeks now, the White House has been doing everything it can to provide some buffer for Vice President Al Gore against the growing allegations that his involvement in the Clinton-Gore fund-raising excesses of the 1996 campaign was more than an unintentional or inadvertent misstep here and there.

Up to now, it seems to have gotten away with the artful dodging, although Mr. Gore's faulty memory has cast considerable doubt about his role. But the revelation that portions of the money he raised in phone solicitations from his White House office went not to the Democratic National Committee as ''soft'' money but to the Clinton-Gore campaign as ''hard'' money puts the vice president in new peril.

The disclosure increases the prospect that he will face an independent counsel whose investigation will be harder for the White House to block or delay. Critical in such an eventuality is the distinction between soft and hard money. Soft money -- funds to be used not for a specific candidate but for party-building and voter-turnout efforts -- has no limit on it, either in amount or type of contributor. Hard money -- funds earmarked for direct candidate use or benefit -- is sharply limited by law, with criminal penalties for violations.

It is the handling of the latter category of contributions that can trigger a call by Attorney General Janet Reno for a three-judge panel to consider naming an independent counsel. Many Republicans and a few Democrats in Congress say that even before this latest disclosure, there already were sufficient grounds for her to act on the general record of Clinton-Gore fund-raising. But Ms. Reno has steadfastly declined, saying activities so far revealed don't qualify under the specifics of the law.

Now she has decided that the Justice Department will review the latest disclosures to determine whether Mr. Gore's activities warrant triggering the process toward appointment of an independent counsel. The governing law stipulates that evidence of the breaking of a federal campaign-finance law by a senior government official must be present for that step to be taken. In all other reviews of Democratic fund-raising, Justice has taken the position that no law was broken by such an official, but now Mr. Gore clearly qualifies.

The semantic defense

The White House for months has been dancing around the semantics of the law in question, and no doubt will continue to do so. But the more that comes out in the press or through leaks about Mr. Gore, the more pressure will mount on Ms. Reno to request an independent counsel. Congressional Republicans have renewed their call in light of the latest revelations.

Meanwhile, the Senate hearings are zeroing in on Mr. Gore with testimony guaranteed to attract the television cameras. The spectacle of three Buddhist nuns admitting they helped launder contributions to the Democratic cause at a Los Angeles temple fund-raiser attended by Mr. Gore is poison for the vice president. This is especially so because of further testimony that temple leaders had met with him in Washington before the fund-raiser.

Mr. Gore through his agents continues to say he didn't know the temple meeting was to be a fund-raiser, but merely an opportunity for him to thank the attendees for past contributions. And he says he didn't know that some of the funds collected were to be used as hard money. For someone so deeply engaged in raising the wherewithal to run the Clinton-Gore campaign, however, he sounds strangely out of the loop.

It's much too early to speculate on how seriously, if at all, Mr. Gore's presidential ambitions for the year 2000 are being damaged by the intensified spotlight on his activities as a money-raiser. The procedure to put an independent counsel -- a prosecutor, in plain words -- on the case still has months to go, and the Senate inquiry faces an agreed deadline of the end of the year.

But the harder the White House works to shield him, the more it is likely to look to average voters that Mr. Gore, for all his denials, has a lot to hide.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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