Investigations linked to Gore pile on as nomination firms up

In about two weeks, four allegations hit Democrat's campaign

March 25, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In rapid-fire succession over just 14 days, Vice President Al Gore's campaign has been rattled by four allegations of ethical impropriety, ranging from campaign finance abuses to the concealing of subpoenaed e-mails by the White House.

Gore has dismissed all four as inconsequential, and investigations of similar charges have proved fruitless in the past. But their appearance could strengthen a dominant theme emerging in the Republican presidential campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush: Gore is not to be trusted.

"These are not mistakes," asserted Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman. "These are habits that raise serious questions about whether Al Gore is ready to be our next president."

Two weeks ago, a confidential 1998 memo from the former head of the Justice Department's campaign finance task force emerged, suggesting that the vice president "may have provided false testimony" to federal investigators.

In that testimony, Gore claimed not to recall whether fund-raising calls he made from the White House violated laws governing what kind of donations could be sought on government property.

A week ago, the congressional Joint Tax Committee charged that officials in the vice president's office had improperly contacted the Internal Revenue Service, seeking information on a pending ruling that would affect an unnamed labor union. Though the calls were not seeking information about a tax return, they might have violated rules that restrict contact between the White House and IRS, the committee said.

On Thursday, two more issues emerged.

The White House disclosed that its computer system had failed to record perhaps thousands of e-mails from and to Gore and his staff. Because of a computer glitch, subpoenaed information pertaining to Gore's role in 1996 fund-raising improprieties might have been withheld from congressional and federal investigators.

On top of that, it was revealed that Gore's campaign chairman, Tony Coelho, is under potentially criminal investigation for alleged financial improprieties stemming from his service as U.S. commissioner general at the 1998 World Exposition in Portugal.

The State Department's inspector general reported in October that Coelho had taken out a $300,000 personal loan to build a Portuguese-American memorial wall. The loan exposed taxpayers to the cost of a potential default.

Taken individually, the charges might not be hard to defuse. The Justice Department's public integrity section, for instance, examined whether Gore had misled investigators about fund-raising calls from the White House, and concluded in 1998 that it had found "clear and convincing" evidence that Gore had not lied.

The vice president's office has said unequivocally that there was nothing improper about the IRS contacts, because they came from Gore's chief counsel. Federal law allows such contact.

As for the e-mail investigation, even Republican House staff are not charging an effort by Gore or his staff to hide e-mails. The vice president's computer system was just never connected to the White House network that would have recorded and stored e-mails.

The main questions on the e-mail matter concern the president's staff, which discovered a glitch in the system in 1998 but failed to report it to Congress, the independent counsel investigations or the Justice Department. Two computer contract workers at the White House testified to Congress Thursday that they were threatened with jail time if they revealed the discovery.

Coelho's problems do not involve Gore himself, who defended his campaign chairman yesterday, saying he is "doing a terrific job."

But at the very least, the barrage of inquiries is creating a distraction for the campaign. Gore supporters said they did not believe it was a coincidence that so many damaging stories have emerged just after Gore clinched the Democratic nomination.

Kathleen Begala, Gore's communications director, insisted yesterday that Americans were far more concerned about issues raised by the vice president, such as Social Security reform, health care and education, than more scandal news out of Washington.

But Bush officials see an opening in the drumbeat of allegations. A poll released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that ethical questions could hurt Gore.

Hearing that Gore had taken part in unethical fund-raising, for instance, would make 52 percent of voters less inclined to vote for the vice president, the poll found.

Bush is hardly about to let an allegation go unnoticed.

"I think America is just wondering about these investigations," Bush said yesterday. "And we need to let the sun shine in and put all the facts on the table, so everybody knows what the truth is. But the best way to make sure we get rid of all these investigations is to change administrations."

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