The Veep's loot

September 09, 1997|By Philadelphia Inquirer, Sept. 5

ONCE UPON A TIME, Al Gore looked like the choir boy of the Clinton White House. No more. As the truth about his fund-raising keeps dribbling out, the veep thought to be so strait-laced looks worse and worse.

What this portends in the near term is talk of an independent counsel. For the longer term, his improper and possibly illegal fund-raising will affect Mr. Gore's credentials as a prospective president.

The plot has thickened since last March, when Mr. Gore admitted to making ''a few'' fund-raising phone calls from his White House office. That would have been bad enough; when you're a business person getting hit up by the vice president of the United States, it's hard to say no. Now it turns out his definition of a ''few'' was calls to ''80'' different people.

In an awkward news conference last March, Mr. Gore had insisted that (in his poetic phrase) ''no controlling legal authority'' prevented his dialing for dollars. He also claimed he had raised only ''soft money'' for party activities -- which is less regulated than ''hard money'' for a particular campaign.

Now it turns out that $120,000 of the Gore loot went into a hard-money account at the Democratic National Committee, to be spent directly on the Clinton-Gore campaign. He says that happened without his knowledge.

So last week the Justice Department announced a preliminary, 30-day investigation into whether an independent counsel ought to probe the vice president's telemarketing. Given enough evidence of wrongdoing, a more comprehensive, 90-day study would be done. Only then would the attorney general have to decide.

Even as career lawyers pore over the evidence, let's state the obvious: An independent counsel should be named. Mr. Gore's half-truths to date have eroded public confidence, making it all the more important that his behavior be scrutinized by a legal team that doesn't report to a member of the Clinton Cabinet.

At issue here is whether the vice president broke the law that generally prohibits officials from soliciting campaign contributions in federal offices. Mr. Gore's defense to date has consisted of the kind of hairsplitting that keeps lawyers fully employed, but keeps the public fully appalled.

Remember, this is just the latest black eye for a team that promised the most ethical administration in history. It's past time for that team's fund-raising practices to be reviewed by a controlling legal authority that's independent of political pressure.

An independent counsel offers the best chance that the public will have all the facts in hand when it's asked in the year 2000 whether it wants to promote Al Gore.

Pub Date: 9/09/97

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