DNC Fund-Raising Flap Snags Labor Nominee
By Frank Swoboda
The White House yesterday provided its most detailed explanation yet of how the president came to host a coffee attended by Democratic party fund-raisers, the leaders of 17 major financial institutions and the nation's top banking regulator.
Alexis M. Herman, President Clinton's nominee to be secretary of labor, was the person who added Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig's name to the guest list, based on a "misunderstanding" of the nature of the meeting, White House officials said.
Herman, director of the White House's Office of Public Liaison, initially did not know the May 13 coffee had been organized by the Democratic National Committee, the officials said. When she learned that, just days before the meeting, she decided it would be inappropriate for her to attend, but did not notify Ludwig.
The White House's explanation of Herman's role in the banker's meeting comes as Senate Republicans have put off confirmation hearings on her nomination, pending a review of her political activities while working at the White House.
Clinton said Tuesday that Ludwig should not have been included in the May meeting. Critics have said it was inappropriate to mix party fund-raisers with a federal regulator who holds enormous power over the potential donors at the meeting.
Yesterday, the White House stepped up its public support of Herman, who has declined interviews while her nomination is pending. White House press secretary Michael McCurry said, "The president is certainly willing to work very hard on behalf of a nominee that he considers exceptionally well-qualified."
Herman first entered government in 1977 when, at age 30, she became the youngest head of the Labor Department's Women's Bureau. At the end of the Carter administration, she became active in Democratic politics, serving in 1988 as deputy convention manager for the Jesse Jackson campaign under the late Ron Brown. When Brown became chairman of the DNC, he made Herman his deputy chairman and chief of staff.
Herman was named co-director of the presidential transition team when Clinton was first elected in 1992. During the Clinton administration, she has run the Office of Public Liaison, which is responsible for building and maintaining relationships between the White House and various constituencies.
Republicans on the Senate Labor Committee are preparing a list of questions they want Herman to answer based on recently released White House documents on political fund-raising activities. They have decided to put off her confirmation hearing, possibly until late February, while they review her answers and those documents.
Among other things, the documents provide details about 103 coffees with the president organized by the DNC to help build a record campaign war chest for the Clinton-Gore reelection effort. Clinton, during a news conference Tuesday, defended the events as good and appropriate opportunities for him to meet with supporters and other constituents, but conceded that Ludwig should not have been invited to the one with 17 of the nation's top bankers.
According to the White House, the bankers' meeting was the only one of the coffees in which Herman or the Office of Public Liaison were involved. "Alexis and the OPL were non-players in the coffee business," said White House spokesman Joseph Lockhart, adding that Herman did attend about half a dozen others as the president's staff representative, but not in her capacity as public liaison.
Lockhart, in response to questions from The Washington Post, said Herman did set up the bankers' coffee in her public liaison role at the request of the White House political office. A staff person in Herman's office added Ludwig's name and about half a dozen others to the list of invitees that had been prepared by the political office, not knowing that the meeting was initially requested by the Democratic National Committee, Lockhart said.
Lockhart said Herman's office issued the invitations "based on a misunderstanding that this was an official event." Official events are considered nonpolitical by the White House. "She thought it would be appropriate [to invite Ludwig] to a meeting where people come and exchange views," Lockhart said.
Herman did not know until the weekend before the Monday meeting that DNC Chairman Donald L. Fowler and Marvin Rosen, DNC finance chairman, would be attending the meeting with the bankers, White House officials said.
Ludwig has said he did not recognize the DNC officials, and would not have attended had he known they were coming.
The bankers' coffee is just one of Herman's problems. Senate Republicans also are questioning a report Herman prepared for the president's reelection campaign outlining a political campaign for bolstering the president's support among African Americans.
Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Tuesday that plan comes "awfully close to the edge of violating the Hatch Act."
The Hatch Act is the federal law prohibiting certain political activities by government employees.
White House officials yesterday defended Herman against possible Hatch Act charges. Under guidelines issued by the White House counsel, political appointees may do political work, even during their normal work day, as long as they put in a 40-hour workweek on their government job.
McCurry, in his defense of Herman, gave a sample of just how the fight would go if the Republicans decide to block Herman's confirmation because of her role in developing the White House campaign tactics for attracting African American support.
"I can't believe that the majority leader would suggest that she's disqualified from serving as secretary of labor because she attempted to encourage African Americans to participate in the political process of this nation," McCurry said.
In raising questions about the Hatch Act on Tuesday, Lott appeared untroubled by other queries that have been raised by both Republican and Democratic critics of Herman's role in what have become known as the "midnight contracts" at the Labor Department during the final days of the Carter administration. In the days after the election of Ronald Reagan, the Labor Department awarded millions of dollars in contracts under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Program (CETA), much of it to groups including Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition and the Martin Luther King Center.
A subsequent hearing by Senate Republicans cleared the department of any wrongdoing, but the controversy has resurfaced since Herman's nomination.
Lott told a press conference Tuesday that he was satisfied with answers Herman gave him about the contracts and her role at the department. "I feel like there's no problem there," Lott said.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company