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    Money Talks

    White House Coffees Give Fund Raising A Jolt

    By Dwight L. Morris
    Jan. 27, 1997

    "Iím shocked! Shocked to find that gambling is going on here!" With those words, Louis Renault – the dissolute but lovable police commandant in the movie "Casablanca" – closes down Rickís cafť, a nightclub where gambling is one of the principal forms of entertainment. As Renault turns to leave, Rickís croupier hands him his winnings from a night at the roulette table.

    Last Friday Vice President Al Gore explained that though he had known that party fund-raisers would attend a reception last April at the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif., and videotape of the event showed him thanking the fund-raisers by name, he had no idea that they would actually collect $140,000 during the event. Goreís comments came three days after President Clinton reiterated his disgust for the current political fund-raising system and urged DNC leaders to change the way the party collects money.

    However, in a plot twist that even Louis Renault would have found ironic, the White House released documents on Friday showing that both Clinton and Gore were at the very heart of a massive fund-raising operation that raked in nearly $100 million in soft money donations. Several million of those dollars were illegally collected from foreign donors and others who did not have the financial means to contribute. Who says life doesnít imitate art?

    Not Just A Cup Of Joe
    Putting the best face on it, in the space of just 22 months, 103 coffee klatches were held at the White House to reward major DNC contributors for their generosity. Despite the fact that virtually everyone attending had major policy concerns and that each participant was allowed to ask the president or vice president one question, White House spokesman Lanny Davis contended that no one attempted to influence foreign or domestic policy.

    A more cynical observer might conclude that the meetings were meant not only to express gratitude for past donations but also to encourage future gifts to the DNC with special access to key policy makers. Considering that one such gathering brought the president, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, and the controller of the currency, Eugene Ludwig, together with more than a dozen chief executives of the nationís largest financial institutions, one doesnít even have to be a conspiracy theorist to buy that argument. Those attending the meeting ultimately coughed up $332,654 in soft money for the DNC. Not everyone who attended these coffees was a donor; only about one-third of those who did ended up writing checks. But oh what checks they were.

    That outpouring of generosity included a $100,000 gift from BankAmerica slightly more than one month after its chairman visited the White House. Fleet Services Corporation of Boston kicked in $50,000 roughly one month after the meeting. The guest list for that August gathering was drawn up by former Treasury undersecretary Frank Newman, whose current employer, Bankers Trust Company, gave the DNC $75,000 on July 5.

    The Timing Of Donations
    The White House maintains that no one passed a hat at these gatherings. While that may be true, the timing of donations is extremely intriguing. Two executives of the New York investment firm Goldman Sachs, Robert Menschel and Barrie Wigmore, attended a coffee with the president on May 1, 1996. One week later, they each wrote checks for $100,000 to the DNC. Former American Distilling executive Samuel Rothberg of Peoria, Ill., also attended that coffee, and coincidentally also wrote the DNC a check for $100,000 on May 8.

    Robert Elkins, chairman of Integrated Health Services in Owings Mills, Md., attended four coffees between Dec. 15, 1995 and Jan. 26, 1996. On Dec. 20 – five days after his first coffee, two days after his second coffee, and one day before his third visit to the White House – Elkins wrote a $50,000 personal check to the DNC and delivered another $75,000 check from his company coffers. On Jan. 30, just five days after his fourth White House visit, Elkins delivered another $50,000 check drawn from his companyís bank account. By the end of 1996, Elkins had delivered personal and company checks totaling $560,000 to the DNC, which made him the DNCís sixth largest donor over the past two years.

    David H. Nutt, an attorney from Jackson, Miss., attended a Dec. 13, 1995 coffee with both Clinton and Gore. That day he wrote a personal check to the DNC for $80,000. William D. Rollnick, the retired chairman of Genstar Rental Electronics, wrote a $50,000 check to the DNC on Jan. 25, 1996 – the same day he attended a White House coffee hosted by the president.

    In early 1995, Furture Tech International of Miami donated $100,000 to the DNC. On Feb. 12, 1996, just six days after sipping coffee with Clinton, Mark Jimenez, Furture Techís chairman and CEO, gave the DNC $50,000. Over the next eight months Future Tech donated another $175,500.

    Richard Machado, a physician who owns several hospitals in Puerto Rico, attended his first White House coffee on Nov. 9, 1995, only six days after writing three soft money checks to the DNC totaling $200,000. On June 18, 1996, Machado returned to the White House for a refill, and the next day cut a check to the DNC for $50,000.

    AFLAC, the Georgia-based insurance giant and a long-time Republican supporter, donated $100,000 to the DNC on July 15, 1996 – one week after its president and CEO, Daniel Amos, attended a coffee. One week after George David, president and CEO of United Technologies, attended a June 21, 1995 coffee, the company delivered a $50,000 check, and over the two-year election cycle pumped in a total of $176,900.

    On March 5, 1996, Derald H. Ruttenberg, chairman of New York-based Tinicum Inc., attended a coffee hosted by Clinton in the White House map room. Fifteen days later he gave the DNC $100,000. Robert M. Rubin, executive vice president of American International Group, attended that same coffee, but only waited eight days to send in his $80,000 check.

    In fact, roughly $27 million of the soft money raised by the DNC during 1995 and 1996 was raised from individuals and corporations invited to attend these private chats. Approximately $8.7 million of that total was collected within the month before or the month following a personal meeting with Clinton or Gore.

    Even if one buys the Pollyanna explanation that these events had nothing to do with raising money, is this the way the American people want the president and vice president to spend their time?

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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