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Mr. Clinton's Library Lesson

Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page A38

THE LAST THING we want to do is dampen the festivities in Little Rock, where the Clinton Presidential Center is opening today, but does anybody remember Marc Rich? He's the fugitive financier who was pardoned by President Bill Clinton on his way out of office -- after Mr. Rich's ex-wife, songwriter Denise Rich, gave $450,000 to the foundation raising money for this very same library. The pardon scandal spotlighted a dangerous gap in financial disclosure rules: Sitting presidents are free to raise millions for their future presidential libraries without having to reveal who is writing the checks.

This lack of disclosure was outrageous even before the pardon scandal erupted: Mr. Clinton was vacuuming up six- and seven-figure pledges from his White House perch, and there was no way for the public to know what interests these donors had before the government or what favors they might be receiving. It's even more outrageous that this practice remains legal after the revelations of Mr. Clinton's final-days pardons. The House passed a measure two years ago that would have required disclosure, but the Senate failed to act; with the topic out of the headlines, lawmakers seem to have lost interest.

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Ethical purists could argue that sitting presidents shouldn't be raising this money at all, or that donations should at least be limited in size. These libraries are expensive; Mr. Clinton's cost $165 million, and we still don't know the sources of much of that money. Presidents want to take up the collection while in office. That's when checks flow most easily, which is precisely the problem. With large "soft money" donations to political parties banned, there are no longer many opportunities to write big checks to curry favor with presidents -- and this money goes to a cause they care about a lot.

But even if we relegate the ethical purists to their usual corner and ignore them, at the very least these donations should be a matter of public record. That goes for checks to presidential libraries after a president leaves office, too; otherwise, those involved could evade the requirement merely by pledging to give once the term is up. Privacy interests that attach to other charitable contributions aren't compelling here; after all, the presidential libraries, though built and endowed with private funds, are public property, run by the National Archives. The public has a right to know who's underwriting them.

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