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President Had Big Role in Setting Donor Perks
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 26, 1997; Page A01
President Clinton and top aides were intimately involved in orchestrating a broad campaign fund-raising operation during his first term and explicitly authorized the use of the White House as a tool to woo or reward big donors, according to internal documents released yesterday.
Although the president has portrayed himself as removed from the money-collecting tactics that have spurred congressional and criminal investigations, the records show he took a hands-on role in directing the effort down to small details.
Among other things, Clinton personally authorized a variety of perks for top party contributors, including golf games and morning jogs with him and overnight stays in the Lincoln Bedroom, the documents show. Memos written by close advisers confirm that small White House gatherings with the president were intended to stroke wealthy backers. The documents include references to "Coffee w/Top 20 Fundraisers," "donor events . . . in the White House East Wing" and "servicing dinners (White House)" for those who chipped in at least $100,000.
Clinton was so personally involved in the quest that he sought the names of other large donors to be feted at the White House and wrote out in longhand a draft direct-mail solicitation in which he pleaded with supporters to "please send us a check now—anything you can afford. . . . And share this report with your friends and neighbors. Copy it. Fax it."
During a brief exchange with reporters yesterday, Clinton denied trading White House sleep-overs for large checks, saying his motive in inviting contributors to stay at the executive mansion was to soothe the bruised feelings of supporters who considered themselves shut out since his election in 1992.
"A lot of the people that helped me get elected president in '92 thought that they had gotten estranged, in effect, from me, that we had not kept in touch with them," the president said. ". . . I wanted to ask some of my friends who had helped me when I got elected president, that I hadn't been in touch with, to come to the White House and spend the night with me.
"I did not have any strangers here," he added. "The Lincoln Bedroom was never 'sold.' That was one more false story we have had to endure."
Every modern president has used the trappings of incumbency to court financial benefactors, but even Clinton aides have acknowledged that they took it to a new level in 1995-96 as they sought to compete with Republicans, who historically have raised more money than Democrats.
The three-inch stack of documents, compiled by former White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes, who turned them over to investigators last week, provided plenty of ammunition for Clinton's Republican critics.
"I think the president misled the American people at the least," added Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of a House oversight panel investigating campaign finance abuses. "He said the Lincoln Bedroom was not for sale. Now we got his handwritten note—there's no question what it refers to. What the president said not only rings hollow. . . . I hate to use the term 'lie,' but it's awful close."
The files document how tightly the White House, in the form of Ickes, controlled the Democratic National Committee and used it as an arm of the Clinton-Gore reelection campaign. Schedules, budgets, promotional brochures and even letters of complaint from DNC headquarters tracked their way through Ickes's office.
Yet in a move that continues to mystify even his close friends, Clinton effectively dumped Ickes from the White House days after the election when he chose another former aide, Erskine B. Bowles, over Ickes as his second-term chief of staff. Ickes has since been assigned to coordinate an international summit in Denver this summer; he turned over the documents at the request of Burton's committee.
In Ickes's files, the idea of using overnight stays in connection with campaign fund-raising first appeared in writing in the White House response to a Jan. 5, 1995, memo from Terence R. McAuliffe, then national finance chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who outlined several strategies to "energize" generous givers.
Clinton welcomed the idea. "Ready to start overnights right away," he scrawled in response.
McAuliffe included a list of "our ten top supporters" as possible beneficiaries of special access, but that wasn't enough for Clinton. "Get other names at 100,000 or more, 50,000 or more," he wrote.
While it appears from the note that the president was seeking more donors to whom favors could be dispensed, aides said yesterday that Clinton simply asked so that he would know how much they had given when he next encountered big contributors.
"He said, 'I want to see who these people are who've helped because when I see them again, I want to acknowledge them,'‚" said deputy communications director Ann Lewis.
Among the 10 on McAuliffe's initial list were Arthur Coia, president of the mob-influenced Laborers International Union of North America; Carl Lindner, a financier and banana company tycoon also known for large gifts to Republicans; and Ernest G. Green, a civil rights leader and businessman whose life story was made into a television movie.
Only four of the 10 ultimately stayed overnight in the White House: Lindner; John Connelly, who made a fortune in riverboat dining cruises; Phil Montrone, a manufacturing executive; and Stan Shuman, an investment banker. The unhappiness among large donors that Clinton mentioned yesterday was documented in a series of letters in 1994. Carl Spielvogel, a prominent businessman and DNC fund-raiser, wrote in May that "there are quite a few disaffected 'heavy givers' who feel let down by a lack of 'tender loving care' since the victory."
The letter found its way to Ickes, who wrote back later in the month that the "DNC is concerned and is making greater efforts to remedy whatever problem there may be in that regard."
But the White House found itself wrestling with how much to offer in benefits to contributors without appearing to be promising access. In June 1995, Clinton reviewed a promotional brochure drafted to entice Democrats to join fund-raising councils at a cost of $100,000 or more and scribbled a note to Ickes on top of it: "You need to get to the bottom of this. It's awful."
Similarly in April 1996, Ickes forced the DNC to take language out of a program for a Saxophone Club fund-raiser that boasted that members "hosted twelve events in Washington last year with the President, Vice President, First Lady and numerous other administration officials and political leaders."
In July 1995, DNC National Chairman Donald L. Fowler wrote to Ickes about developing $1,000 donors. Various activities that were planned, he said, were "expressly approved by the White House political affairs staff."
Ickes wrote a detailed memo to Clinton that month that said Fowler "feels strongly that the DNC should announce it is only accepting contributions of no more than $2,000 and will no longer take the $10,000, $25,000, $50,000 or $100,000 contributions. Otherwise the DNC will be accused of hypocrisy."
But Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), the DNC's general chairman, "feels very strongly that we are not in a position to cease the fundraising techniques," Ickes told the president.
Ickes's records show that the White House was also concerned with raising money for the legal defense fund set up to pay costs from the Whitewater investigation and Paula Corbin Jones's lawsuit against the president.
Fund trustees have said their rules prohibit them from accepting money from corporations or labor unions, and from taking more than $1,000 a year from any donor. But with the Clintons' legal fees climbing, the White House worried in fall 1995 that the tab would approach $3 million or $4 million by the time of the election. "What if P. doesn't pay bill through the election? Will this be a political problem?" Ickes wrote in meeting notes. He and others in the White House discussed setting up another fund, with more liberal fund-raising rules, to be called "the Fund for the Preservation of the Presidency."
Ickes's handwritten notes from a White House meeting last April 4 detailed discussions about how to handle $378,300 in defense fund donations that had just been delivered by Charlie Yah Lin Trie. Those funds and others are suspected of having been generated by religious leader Ching Hai from followers who in some cases did not have bank accounts and did not appear in a position to donate thousands of dollars.
Ickes had a March 1994 article about Ching Hai with the notes from the meeting, though fund trustees did not decide to return the money until an investigation was completed some months later.
"Don't report names if $ are returned," noted Ickes.
Staff writer Dan Morgan and researchers Nathan Abse and Alice Crites contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company