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    Money Talks

    Memos Show That Despite Warnings, White House Walked Fine Line On Campaign Activity

    By Dwight L. Morris
    March 4, 1997

    Long before the public learned about the details of Democratic fund raising the White House counsel's office attempted a pre-emptive strike regarding campaign contributions and fund-raising efforts from inside the administration.

    On April 27, 1995, White House counsel Abner J. Mikva and Cheryl Mills, associate counsel to the president, prepared a memorandum to provide "employees of the White House Office, the Office of Policy Development, and the Office of Vice President with guidance regarding Presidential campaign-related political activity." Mikva and Mills hoped the memo would "help avoid a problem before it arises," and cautioned that "the simplest rule to follow is the ‘common sense’ practice that anything obviously political that involves the use of resources should be done by the campaign, even if doing it [at the White House] can be ‘legally’ justified."

    Only in their dreams. Other memos and recently released guest lists suggest that problems had arisen well before the warnings, and continued to develop despite them.

    Coffees With Contributors
    By the time Mikva and Mills sat down to pen the memo, the president and vice president had already hosted six coffees at the White House for past supporters and big contributors – or those they hoped would become big contributors. The day after the memo was distributed, the president had coffee with Harold Ickes, deputy chief of staff for policy and political affairs; Laura Hartigan, a member of the re-election committee's finance team; and six prominent businessmen. Four of those six businessmen would ultimately donate a combined $560,319 in soft money to the DNC for the 1996 campaign.

    President Clinton has insisted that none of the 98 coffee klatsches – paid for by the DNC but held at the White House or the Old Executive Office Building – could be considered fundraisers. It is against federal law to solicit money on federal property. But those who attended the coffees pumped more than $27 million into the DNC’s soft-money accounts between Jan. 1, 1995 and Dec. 31, 1996, and many of those donations were made within days of White House visits.

    As former DNC chairman Don Fowler recalled in a recent interview with The Boston Globe, "they wouldn’t get the message [to contribute] at the meeting" but afterward "somebody would call them and ask them." Fowler added, "one would be naïve to say that the call was purely coincidental."

    One would also have to be naïve to believe that the Lincoln Bedroom and several other bedrooms at the White House were not used as inducements to ratchet up contributions or reward past gifts from the party faithful. While many of those on the White House’s overnight guest list were old friends who contributed little or nothing to the Clinton-Gore re-election effort, it is also undeniably true that the president encouraged the DNC to give him the names of the party’s biggest fat cats. "Get other names at 100,000 or more, 50,000 or more," the president scrawled on a 1995 memo from DNC finance chairman Terry McAuliffe. "Ready to start overnights right away. Give me the top 10 list back, along w/the 100, 50,000."

    During the two years prior to his re-election, White House overnight guests anted up more than $5.4 million, and with very little overlap between the coffee and the slumber party guests, the money just kept rolling in.

    Employee Donations
    But outside contributions weren't the only concern. Federal law is specific not only about fundraisers on federal property but also about money from federal employees. The counsel's office addressed this too. Mikva and Mills' memo warned that "it is a felony for any officer or employee of the government to give a political contribution to his or her employer or employing authority. At the very least, this provision prohibits employees of the White House Office, the Office of Policy Development, and the Office of the Vice President (including his Senate staff), and quite probably all federal employees, from contributing to the authorized campaign committee of the President."

    The memo cites 18 U.S.C. Section 603 on this point, not the now-famous Hatch Act, which was passed in 1993 to clarify how far government employees' political activities could go. While the Hatch Act exempts the president, vice president and appointees requiring Senate confirmation from the activities it prohibits, the statute Mikva cites does not. (Read the full text of 18 U.S.C. Section 603, courtesy of the Cornell Law School Web site.)

    Nevertheless, according to Federal Election Commission reports, contributors listing their employer as "U.S. government" pumped more than $360,000 into the coffers of the Clinton-Gore primary campaign committee – nearly three times as much as any single company's employees' combined contributions (Ernst & Young topped the list of corporate "bundlers" with nearly $140,000). Among the federal employees contributing directly to the president's authorized re-election committee was Harold Ickes.

    The White House Database
    The Mikva memo also made it clear that "official White House resources should not be used for campaign purposes. In certain instances where official resources are used for purposes that may be considered campaign-related, there must be prompt reimbursement for the costs."

    On June 28, 1994 – nine months before Mikva's warning – White House employee Marsha Scott wrote a memo to Ickes and Hillary Clinton outlining plans for the design of a new White House database system. The memo explicitly notes the need to make that system compatible with a new system that was being contemplated for the DNC, as well as the re-election committee’s computer system.

    "My team and I are also engaged in conversations with the DNC about the new computer system they are proposing," Scott wrote. "We have asked that their system be modeled after whatever system we decide to use outside the White House. I need you to make very clear to them that their system must be technologically compatible, if not the same, as whatever system we decide to use for political purposes later on," she added.

    No evidence yet exists that the systems were ever made compatible, but the clear suggestion is that the lists of White House guests and the DNC’s contributor database should be matchable. As Scott put it, "Cloning or duplicating database systems is not difficult if carefully planned by a good design team.... Let my team work with the DNC to help them design a system that will meet our needs and technical specifications."

    The first lady’s response to the suggestion – penned in the memo’s margin – "This sounds promising. Please advise."

    One could easily argue that the database plans – along with the White House events and fund raising among federal employees – violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the laws Mikva outlined so carefully in his memo. Such activities strongly suggest that White House efforts to shape DNC fund-raising policy were not a case of unintentional missteps, but rather a deliberate effort to exploit fine lines and loopholes that were well understood.

    This article originally appeared on the PoliticsNow Web site.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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