Still more surprise videotapes put White House on defensive Finance reform votes and Ickes' testimony due in Senate today

October 07, 1997|By Carl M. Cannon and Susan Baer | Carl M. Cannon and Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Even as Senate investigators reviewed videotaped snippets of 44 White House fund-raising coffees, presidential lawyers revealed yesterday that they have discovered additional recordings of President Clinton at other fund-raising events.

"We don't know yet what the universe of the tapes is, but certainly there are more than these coffees," Lanny J. Davis, special White House counsel, said yesterday. Davis said the additional tapes included events outside the White House complex, as well as "political dinners" within the compound, but said the videotapes show nothing improper.

The latest revelations about the White House tapes -- and the swirl of interest in the campaign fund-raising abuses of the last election -- dovetail with the first key votes on campaign finance reform legislation scheduled in the Senate today.

The disclosure of the tapes put the White House on the defensive again -- this time as Harold M. Ickes, a former White House deputy chief of staff, prepares to appear today before a Senate committee investigating 1996 campaign fund-raising abuses.

Senate investigators have been asking about the possibility of such tapes since February and included them in a subpoena. On Aug. 7, lawyers on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee told White House attorneys that they had heard that such tapes existed and insisted that they be turned over.

Those tapes were finally found by the White House counsel's office Wednesday. They were turned over to the committee Saturday, three days before the scheduled testimony of Ickes, the de facto 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign manager. The tapes show Clinton mingling with wealthy donors in the White House, where political fund-raising is restricted because it is federal property.

Though the White House counsel's office said it discovered the tapes Wednesday, no one notified the Justice Department until Saturday. That was a day after Attorney General Janet Reno announced that she was exonerating the president of most wrongdoing in the fund-raising furor, including his role in the coffees.

"The timing of the discovery of the videotapes and their production to the Justice Department was in no way affected by the attorney general's letter," Davis said. He called the delay "an honest overlooking of materials."

Asked yesterday about the delay, Clinton said it "was just an accident" that they had not been turned over sooner.

"All I can tell you is, as soon as I found out about it -- late last week -- I said, 'Get this out and let's go on,' " Clinton said.

The tapes do not show Clinton directly raising money. For that reason, Davis said, the videotapes in no way alter the White House version of events.

"Our position stays exactly the same: We think the American people see this as a political dispute," he said. "At the end of the day, what it all points to is the need for campaign finance reform."

Republicans are skeptical

Republicans on Capitol Hill -- even the handful who favor Clinton-backed campaign finance legislation -- offered a different interpretation.

"There is no question this is a part of an effort to delay and obstruct our investigation," said Sen. Fred Thompson, who is leading the Senate's investigation. "I certainly do not believe the people with responsibility just discovered these in the last few days."

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is co-sponsoring the campaign finance bill championed by the president, said the new disclosures undercut not only the president's position but Reno's as well.

"The attorney general, Janet Reno, just announced that she would not pursue the independent counsel course as far as the president is concerned because she had reviewed all the evidence -- clearly there is now additional evidence," McCain said. "We are now reaching a point where her credibility is in real serious danger."

That evidence -- the videotapes -- is expected to be the first topic of inquiry for Ickes, who appears in many of them, as the former White House aide is questioned today by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee.

Republicans on the committee said they may play the tapes at today's hearing, heightening the drama of what is likely to be a contentious session with the aggressively partisan Ickes. Although Ickes was unceremoniously fired by President Clinton days after the 1996 election, he remains a Clinton defender and is expected to be more combative than forthcoming with the committee.

In one of the tapes, Don Fowler, then the Democratic national chairman, is heard fending off one donor who tries to hand him several checks while the president is just a few feet away. Fowler can be heard mumbling about how "the lawyers" make the acceptance of such donations at the White House problematic but assured the contributor that he could collect the money later.

"We'll get it done," Fowler says.

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