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"My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority," Al Gore intoned in the only major news conference of his vice presidency to air on live television.
By the time he entered the cramped White House press room on March 3, 1997, the vice president was in trouble. No longer known as Mister Clean, Gore had been dubbed the "solicitor-in-chief" by DNC staffers. One Democratic donor said the vice president's pursuit of cash amounted to a "shakedown." Sen. Robert G. Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat close to the White House, called Gore's actions "undefendable."
Gore was at his worst that day. He ducked questions, low-balled the number of fund-raising calls he made and seemed to contradict himself, first defending his making the calls, then promising never to do it again. And not once, but seven times, he parroted the disastrous "no controlling legal authority" line fed to him by his attorney.
The specific questions that day concerned whether Gore had broken federal law in soliciting contributions over the phone from his White House office. But the broader issue was the overall conduct of both the Clinton and Dole campaigns.
"What was done in 1996 was taking massive evasions of the campaign finance laws to a new level," says Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, which advocates overhauling the current laws. Auditors at the Federal Election Commission recommended massive fines for both campaigns $7 million for Clinton's and $17 million for Dole's for using party soft money on behalf of the candidates. But the FEC's commissioners rejected that recommendation, effectively authorizing future campaigns to stretch the rules and operate in the same freewheeling way. Investigations by two congressional committees also fizzled, and, in the case of Gore, Attorney General Janet Reno twice rejected entreaties to appoint an independent counsel.
Although the experience left Gore badly sullied, it also "toughened him," says a former aide who remains close to the vice president. "It was the first time in his political career his personal conduct or ethics had been challenged. It served to help him take a punch."
It's January 1999, a full 13 months before the first presidential primary votes are cast, and Mel Levine is sitting in his Los Angeles office hustling for Al Gore. Over the course of three days, Levine will spend 10 hours dialing for dollars, contacting about 50 friends. "There is no shortcut," he says. "You just have to pick up the phone and ask for help."
The response is good: 35 yes, six mulling it over, a couple of requests to attend an event and a couple of rejections. The tally: $60,000.
In his pitch, Levine, a wiry man with curly graying hair and a broad smile, tells his West Coast friends how good the Clinton-Gore team has been to California. With Jewish friends, Levine also stresses the peace efforts in the Middle East and Gore's hawkish stand on Israel.
Then comes the close: "It would be helpful to get this money in early; there's a very high expectation for Al Gore to produce."
Across the United States, hundreds of collectors like Levine are working the phones. Each uses his or her own technique. One New Yorker says when he first made calls on Gore's behalf, he'd start the conversation by inquiring: "So what do you think of Al Gore?" Now he simply gets straight to the point: "I need a thousand bucks."
At the heart of the machine is Peter Knight, a lawyer-lobbyist who got his start as Gore's chief of staff on Capitol Hill 20 years ago. Knight's close connection to Gore has made him one of Washington's most successful lobbyists. In turn, Knight with help from Terry McAuliffe is amassing the largest campaign treasury in history for his friend the vice president.
Knight is no newcomer to high-stakes political fund-raising. He was the one who created the call sheets for Gore's controversial telephone solicitations and he became chairman of the Clinton-Gore campaign in the summer of 1996 after organizing a fund-raising dinner that netted an incredible $12.5 million in soft money in a single night. Knight also organized the fund-raising drives to renovate the vice president's mansion and to establish a college professorship in memory of Gore's sister.
Obtaining McAuliffe's services for the 2000 campaign was an additional coup. A close friend of House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, McAuliffe had stayed a respectful distance from the contest until Gephardt announced he wouldn't run for president. But behind the scenes he helped Knight put together the strategy for collecting $55 million this year and now he is helping to carry it out.
Top fund-raisers such as Knight and McAuliffe operate at the nexus between public affairs and private money, between politicians and the donors who pony up to get them elected. It's a gray zone fraught with potential conflicts of interest, and both Knight and McAuliffe have found themselves under scrutiny by critics who allege they have used their considerable pull with the administration on behalf of business clients and donors.
"It's like a spider's web," says Wertheimer. "The influence the political money people gain through raising large sums of money translates into their own personal financial gain."
In 1997, Knight was investigated by the Justice Department for his work on behalf of Molten Metal Technology, a client that had won a total of $32 million in federal energy contracts in the 1990s. The Massachusetts company and its officers gave at least $90,000 to Democratic campaigns in 1996 and also gave a member of Knight's family $20,000 worth of Molten Metals stock. (No charges were ultimately brought.)
And earlier this year, Attorney General Reno rejected GOP calls to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Knight's ties to Tennessee developer and Democratic donor Franklin Haney. Republicans allege that Knight helped Haney secure favorable terms on a government lease in return for $280,000 in contributions and $1 million in lobbying fees over three years. Reno found no "specific and credible information" that Knight had broken the law. "From the start," says Knight, "these were partisan, political attacks that were never supported by the facts. And, in the end, thorough investigations proved that."
Like Knight, Terry McAuliffe has been scrutinized for mixing his business and politics. In 1997, the Justice Department charged Prudential Insurance Co. of America with paying McAuliffe an illegal $375,000 consulting fee for helping the company win a lucrative government lease. Prudential settled the civil suit; prosecutors decided McAuliffe could not be held responsible. And last year, the Labor Department looked into connections between McAuliffe and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, a major Demo-cratic donor that has also invested in McAuliffe's real estate ventures. No charges were filed against McAuliffe, and he says he was never a target of the investigation.
Wertheimer is concerned that the role of fund-raisers in bundling donations increases the potential for influence-peddling. "An individual can only give $1,000, but a fund-raiser can collect $100,000 or $1 million," he says. "That becomes their way of obtaining influence over presidential candidates." And as the clout of fund-raisers and collectors grows, he adds, "donors are interested in not only buying influence with the candidate but they're also interested in buying influence and building relationships with the fund-raisers."
The Gore campaign insists that it has safety mechanisms to limit any possibility of impropriety. "We have set up the most rigorous system of checks we've ever seen in fund-raising," says campaign manager Craig Smith, who notes that the 1996 controversies "sensitized" Gore to the fact that "he is going to be held to a higher standard."
Paid fund-raisers and volunteer solicitors alike will undergo background checks and receive legal briefings before they begin collecting checks, says Smith. The campaign has also formed a unit of volunteer lawyers and political consultants who meet weekly to review any contributions "that may be legally acceptable but may not pass the smell test," Smith says.
Still, Wertheimer fears that by setting its fund-raising target so high, the Gore campaign is asking for trouble. The issue has the potential to be an Achilles' heel, says Wertheimer, in part because voters already associate Gore with out-of-touch, inside-the-Beltway political circles.
And other presidential contenders aren't likely to let the public forget about the 1996 campaign. "Are you proud when monks and nuns abandon their vows of poverty and pay tens of thousands of dollars to have spiritual communion with the vice president?" GOP Sen. John McCain asked crowds in January. "Are you proud of an administration that spends all of its time worrying about 'controlling legal authorities' but cannot abide a controlling ethical authority?"
Former senator Bill Bradley, Gore's current competition for the Democratic nomination, has been careful not to attack the vice president directly. But he makes a point of bringing up campaign finance reform in every speech, and his underdog, good-government campaign is well poised to take advantage of any fund-raising slips by the Gore machine.
"The abuses of both parties in 1996 have added to the climate of cynicism and skepticism, and those involved carry that baggage into this race," says Bradley adviser Anita Dunn. "Fund-raising has been a problem for the administration not raising the money, but how they do it."
It's a new position for Al Gore to be in. The man who has always run as an honest reformer now stands accused of being part of the problem. The earnest, behind-the-scenes lieutenant finds himself in the spotlight, an overwhelming favorite to win his party's nomination. He has on his side the powers of incumbency, the support of a still-popular president and a chest full of political chits from officeholders and interest groups. But will all of that, plus $55 million, prove to be enough?
On a blustery evening in early March, the vice president's motorcade is racing from event to event on Manhattan's Upper East Side, the people and places blurring into one long scene of well-coiffed men and women, softly lit rooms and silver trays of canapes. It's a familiar tour of the names and addresses that make up the New York Democratic fund-raising circuit.
First stop, the Park Avenue apartment of Christopher Williams, president and CEO of Williams Capital Group, where Gore meets with 20 African American supporters who have volunteered to raise $5,000 apiece for his campaign. "I've been in your building before," the vice president notes without irony. "The Dimons live just one floor up." (That would be Democratic donors Jamie Dimon, the recently ousted president of Citigroup, and his wife, Judith.)
After 20 minutes, it's off to Restaurant Daniel, and a bite with 32 high-tech and entertainment executives who will raise $10,000 apiece.
"This is a group of wonderful friends," Gore says, "and I am grateful for your willingness to be so involved in this presidential campaign."
Handshakes, and then he's out the door again, this time heading to the Fifth Avenue apartment of Steve Rattner and the evening's highest-powered collection: Each of the 40 guests has pledged to raise $35,000.
"I want to tell you all how grateful I am," says the vice president, "for your support, friendship, your advice, your encouragement and for you to be here at this event at the very beginning of my campaign for president."
Forty minutes later, Gore is aboard Air Force 2 for the quick flight home to Washington.
All in all, not a bad night. Three stops in three hours. Three more clusters of donors committed to the campaign. If the pledges all come through, Al Gore will be $1.5 million closer to the White House.
Ceci Connolly covers national politics for The Post. Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this article.
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