Ickes defends fund raising at the White House Key '96 campaign figure says he encouraged calls now under investigation

October 08, 1997|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Harold M. Ickes, the man at the center of President Clinton's re-election campaign -- and the most eagerly anticipated witness of the Senate committee on fund-raising abuses -- delivered a stern defense of the administration yesterday, saying he had no regrets about "the money chase" he masterminded.

Ickes, a former deputy White House chief of staff, acknowledged that some administration officials had shown poor judgment but said: "I know of no violation of law or inappropriate action by the president or vice president."

In a defiant, wholly unapologetic opening statement, Ickes said he had advised Clinton and Vice President Al Gore to engage in fund-raising activities in the White House. These activities, Ickes said, included phone calls that are the subject of Justice Department investigations into whether they violated a law against political fund raising on federal property.

"I so advised them, and I have no regret," said Ickes, who is to return to the Republican-led Governmental Affairs Committee today for questioning that is likely to be combative. "I advised the president that it was proper to do so."

A capacity crowd gathered in the Senate hearing room for what was expected to be a day of fireworks between the committee and the often-acerbic Ickes.

But Republicans, angered at the administration's belated disclosure last weekend of videotapes of White House coffees with donors, took advantage of the full audience -- and a CNN broadcast -- and spent the morning attacking Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno.

In an unusually acrimonious and personal tirade, the committee chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson, a Tennessee Republican, called on Clinton to "step up to the plate and take responsibility" for the fund-raising activity under investigation and for the administration's missteps in handling the furor.

"Mr. President, I would suggest this was your campaign," Thompson declared. "These were your supporters. Much of this money that was raised, illegal money, was for your campaign and for your re-election. This is your White House. This is your Department of Justice. And these are your tapes. And you have a responsibility."

Thompson urged Clinton to call for the appointment of an independent counsel, as the president did when the Whitewater affair reached a fever pitch four years ago.

"Surely, nobody wants this to go down looking like a successful cover-up of much more serious activities," Thompson said.

Friday, the White House turned over 44 videotapes of coffees to Thompson's committee, saying they had just been discovered. Thompson said his committee had been asking for the tapes since April and had been told by the White House that no such tapes existed.

"It is clear the White House is trying to run out the clock on this committee," Thompson said, noting that his panel was authorized to conduct its inquiry only through the end of this year.

Clinton has said it was "just an accident" that the tapes had not been found earlier.

Charles F. C. Ruff, the White House counsel, told reporters yesterday: "This is an event I regret, but it is not the product of any misconduct on anyone's part."

Ruff said the accusation of obstruction of justice "is absolutely not true." Rather, he said: "This is a pattern of lawyers busting their backs to do the best work they can to try to be responsive."

But yesterday, Lanny Breuer, a senior White House counsel, was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury that is investigating campaign finance abuses, an administration official said.

It was Breuer's responsibility to alert the Justice Department about the tapes once he learned of them.

White House officials said that though the tapes were discovered last Wednesday, Breuer was unable to reach the Justice Department official whom he has dealt with until Saturday, one day after Reno had cleared Clinton of misconduct in the coffees.

Thompson opened yesterday's hearings by playing several of the videotape snippets. One showed Clinton entertaining donors in the Oval Office, four of whom, within a week, contributed $100,000 each. Republicans say the tapes bolster their belief that the coffees were fund-raisers, thus violating laws that bar campaign money-raising in federal buildings.

The White House has said that the coffees did not amount to fund raising because no direct solicitation of money occurred. And Justice Department officials have said that the videotapes reviewed so far show no incriminating activity, although the White House is expected to turn over more tapes.

But yesterday, even Democrats had a hard time defending the belated discovery of the tapes. "The accumulation of foul-ups raises the question of what's going on," said Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut.

Committee Republicans also issued blistering personal attacks on Reno for failing to appoint an independent counsel and for issuing the letter Friday in which she concluded that the White House coffees violated no laws.

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