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Staffer Took Donation Inside the White House
First Lady's Top Aide Given $50,000 for DNCBy Peter Baker and Sharon LaFraniere
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 6 1997; Page A01
Hillary Rodham Clinton's top aide took a $50,000 political donation from California businessman Johnny Chung while he was visiting the White House in March 1995, even though federal law bars government employees from accepting campaign contributions on government property.
Margaret A. Williams, the first lady's longtime chief of staff, agreed to take the check and pass it along to the Democratic National Committee, the White House acknowledged yesterday. Chung provided the money at a time when he was seeking access to President Clinton's weekly radio address for himself and several business associates.
The White House offered a lawyerly defense, saying she did not violate laws governing political activities by government workers. Although she took the money, she did not "accept" or "receive" it under the statutory definition, officials said. Moreover, they added, Williams followed established White House policy that checks be forwarded to "the appropriate recipient."
"There was nothing noteworthy about this," said Ann Lewis, the deputy White House communications director.
Several attorneys familiar with the law disagreed with this interpretation, though, and word of Williams's role as a go-between became the latest in a series of revelations about the involvement of the White House in questionable campaign fund-raising activities that have dogged Clinton since before last year's election.
The disclosure comes the same week that Vice President Gore acknowledged that he solicited donations to the DNC from his White House office. Gore contended that there was no "controlling legal authority" that prohibited him from soliciting contributions at the White House.
Yesterday, Gore's office issued a statement saying Gore used a telephone calling card issued by the Clinton-Gore campaign, not a DNC credit card as he originally said. Lyn Utrecht, the campaign's general counsel, said the DNC may need to reimburse the Clinton-Gore campaign for the cost of the calls, but she characterized that as a "not uncommon" matter. The DNC and the campaign are supposed to run independent fund-raising operations.
Although Williams is not high-ranking enough to be covered by the law providing for the naming of an independent counsel, her action could provide more political grist for congressional Republicans who have been pressuring Attorney General Janet Reno to recommend such an appointment.
Chung has been one of the central characters in the fund-raising controversy, a glib entrepreneur who talked his way into the White House 49 times despite the fact that a National Security Council official concluded that he was a "hustler" seeking to exploit his friendship with the Clintons to impress Chinese business associates.
In all, Chung chipped in $366,000 to the DNC, all of which is now being returned because of concerns about the money's origin.
"Mr. Chung was seeking some access, and there may well have been some implicit understanding or perhaps some hopes on Mr. Chung's part that a donation might well facilitate his request," Chung's lawyer, Brian Sun, told NBC News, which reported his transaction with Williams last night.
White House officials said yesterday that Chung first suggested to Williams that he wanted to give money directly to the Clintons.
Williams told him he could not do that, officials said, but informed him he could contribute to the DNC or some other entity. According to this account, Chung returned to the first lady's office with the $50,000 check dated March 9, just two days before he attended a presidential radio address with his business clients.
On the same day the check is dated, Chung and some associates met with then-DNC National Chairman Donald L. Fowler in party offices for about 15 minutes. Fowler said yesterday he could not recall what was discussed but added that Chung did not ask then to get into the radio address.
Chung did ask a Fowler aide, however, and a DNC secretary offered to ask someone she knew at the White House. "She called her friend and said, `I'm calling from Chairman Fowler's office, da-da-da-da,' and it worked," Fowler said.
Chung showed up with six Chinese business executives and had his photo taken with Clinton. Those photos later caused Clinton some consternation. When Chung called Clinton's office to ask for copies, a presidential aide contacted NSC staffers to say the president "wasn't sure we'd want photos of him with these people circulating around," documents show.
Williams declined to comment. But Lewis, who spoke with her, said Williams could not recall many details of her encounter with Chung, including the date or the amount of the check.
Federal law makes it a crime to solicit or receive campaign contributions on government property, punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $5,000. The White House, though, pointed to regulations that provide an exception for "ministerial activities, which precede or follow the official acceptance and receipt, such as handling, disbursing or accounting for contributions."
But one election-law expert, a Democrat, said that exception was meant to protect rank-and-file federal workers who inadvertently receive political contributions, not to allow presidential aides to knowingly collect donations at the White House. The expert called yesterday's disclosure "shocking."
In addition, a 1995 memo by then-White House Counsel Abner J. Mikva stated flatly that no contributions should be received at the White House. The only exceptions he envisioned were gifts via the mail; Mikva instructed that those be sent to the correspondence department and not acknowledged to the donor.
Yet Jan Baran, a Republican attorney specializing in election law, said if no one at the White House requested the contribution and if Williams promptly turned it over to the DNC, the White House "may have an argument that those circumstances do not constitute a violation."
Staff writers Stephen Barr and Susan Schmidt contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company