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The Details of Defining 'Contribution'

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 1997; Page A19

When is a political contribution not a contribution?

Newly available documents describing Vice President Gore's fund-raising solicitations from the White House thrust the issue into the spotlight once again this week. Gore has said there is "no controlling legal authority" preventing him from calling would-be donors for "soft money" contributions to the Democratic National Committee, and Attorney General Janet Reno has agreed with him.

By law, soft money is to be used for party-building activities such as voter registration drives, not for the direct election or defeat of a presidential or congressional candidate.

In a recent letter to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), when she declined to seek an independent counsel to investigate campaign fund-raising violations, Reno explained her reasoning.

Section 607 of Title 18 of the U.S. Criminal Code appears to make it a crime for anyone to solicit or receive contributions in a federal building, such as the White House. But in 1979, as Reno wrote Hatch, "over the objection of the Department of Justice, Congress narrowed the scope of Section 607."

Today, as a result, Reno explained, Section 607 applies "only to contributions . . . commonly referred to as `hard money' " – contributions made directly to a candidate's campaign or otherwise restricted by campaign law.

How did Congress do it? Lawmakers in the post-Watergate era changed Section 607 to say that a "contribution" covered under the statute "does not include" funds used by political committees like the DNC to pay for voter registration and get-out-the-vote activities.

This was just one of the changes made since Section 607 was first written in 1883 to protect federal employees from political assessments. Over the 114 years the law has been on the books, Congress, the Justice Department and the courts have built in their own changes and interpretations.

Section 607 began as one part of five overlapping laws designed to eliminate the practice of political bosses hitting up government workers for money in exchange for job protection or promotions. One statute banned soliciting and receiving political contributions between federal officers and employees. Another made it unlawful to intimidate or solicit a federal worker on the job site.

The law also prohibited soliciting in a federal building by any person, even individuals not employed by the government.

Today, advocates of campaign finance reform say Section 607 is legally ambiguous and almost impossible to enforce unless the person soliciting is trying to obtain funds from a federal employee.

In fact, the Justice Department considers as worthy of prosecution only those cases in which there is evidence of a "shakedown" of federal employees, according to a recent Congressional Research Service study.

In 1979, after questions were raised about President Jimmy Carter soliciting campaign contributions in the White House, Justice's Office of Legal Counsel offered an opinion that Section 607 did not apply to areas of the official residences where the president or vice president reside or areas in the White House complex used for personal, social or nonofficial purposes.

The issue of who is solicited for contributions is also clouded by ambiguity. Originally, the law was designed to protect federal employees from bosses who wanted campaign contributions in return for giving them jobs or not firing them. But what of the calls made by Gore to people outside the government?

The Congressional Research Service said it found no indication that the law had ever been enforced "as applying to solicitations made by mail or telephone from a federal building to someone not in a federal building."

Congress in 1979 passed another amendment to Section 607, this time to take care of a problem that developed because many donors to candidates in presidential, House and Senate races either mailed or personally delivered checks to recipients in federal buildings, not knowing it was against the law. Initially, the statute exempted contributions received by mail in any federal facility, provided the donation was not solicited from that building.

Once received, the contribution had to be sent to "the appropriate political committee within seven days of receipt," according to the 1979 Senate report on the legislation. The report makes no mention of contributions received by hand.

White House press secretary Michael McCurry recently referred to the law's receipt-by-mail provision when discussing a $50,000 check that fund-raiser Johnny Chung passed on to Margaret A. Williams, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's chief of staff, in the White House office complex. "The same principle should apply," McCurry said, "that you direct it to the destination that it's intended to go to."

Until four months ago, members of Congress could be handed campaign contributions in their Capitol Hill offices and even on the House floor. After GOP members acknowledged receiving checks from a tobacco lobbyist on the floor, the practice was barred. In January, the House passed a rule prohibiting such transfers on the floor and in adjacent offices, but allowed the practice to continue in House offices, committee rooms or any other facility on Capitol Hill.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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