Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 1997;
More than $120,000 in campaign contributions personally solicited in 1995-96 by Vice President Gore for a "soft money" account not covered by federal law instead went into a "hard money" account subject to federal election limits.
The money came from at least eight of 46 donors the vice president telephoned from his White House office to ask for contributions to the Democratic National Committee, according to records released by Gore's office.
The distinction is significant because Attorney General Janet Reno has cited the absence of evidence that high-level government officials sought hard money donations as a key reason not to recommend appointment of an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising activities for last year's elections.
Soft money is defined as contributions not intended to support individual candidates but to promote "party-building" and other general campaign activities such as television advertising. While it must be reported, it can be given in unlimited amounts. Hard money contributions are highly valued by campaigns because they can be used directly to benefit individual candidates. But federal law places specific restrictions on the solicitation, amount and use of such contributions.
Among those restrictions, the law says that such regulated contributions cannot be solicited on federal property. Thus, Reno has maintained that because she has seen no evidence regulated contributions were solicited from the White House or, in the words she used in an April 14 letter, any White House area "occupied in the discharge of official duties" no independent counsel is warranted.
A senior White House official said yesterday that Gore did not ask for any hard money contributions, and was unaware that money he solicited was directed into the DNC hard money account.
DNC spokeswoman Amy Weiss Tobe said last night that "the vice president was not aware that money was being designated for the federal [hard money] account." She said that it was "routine procedure" to assign the first $20,000 of a large donation the legal limit for a hard money contribution to that account and to deposit the rest into the soft money account, and suggested that had inadvertently happened with the contributions solicited by Gore.
Officials said last night this practice may bring scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission because it does not necessarily reflect the wishes of the donors, who are supposed to designate the use of the money. Records made available by Gore's office show that his telephone solicitations resulted in at least $120,000 being deposited into the DNC's hard money account within days or weeks after he solicited the donors.
The practice poses a more immediate question for Reno, however, who has been sharply criticized by senior Republicans for declining to ask for appointment of an independent counsel.
Burt Brandenburg, the Justice Department's chief spokesman, said last night that Reno would have no comment on the matter. Reno has previously said that prosecutors assigned to a Justice Department task force examining campaign fund-raising activities would look at any new allegations presented to them.
The controversy about Gore's telephone solicitations arose earlier this year when he was questioned about calls he made from the White House seeking contributions for last year's reelection effort. Although Gore originally acknowledged making a few calls from the White House for soft money contributions, the White House last week acknowledged that he had made 86 calls and reached 46 potential donors.
A separate issue concerning the phone solicitations also arose again last week when Gore's office said the DNC would reimburse the U.S. Treasury for $24.20 for calls presumably made from official government phones. Though the sum is small, it establishes that Gore's attorneys believed that at least 20 calls to potential donors could not be attributed to credit cards controlled by the Clinton-Gore campaign or the DNC and that the government therefore had to be reimbursed for the cost of the calls.
In March, when the question of Gore's personal telephone solicitations first became an issue, Gore said the long-distance calls had been made on a DNC credit card. Later, he said the calls were made on a Clinton-Gore credit card. A review of the phone calls by Gore's attorneys shows that $58.21 of the calls were made on a Clinton-Gore card, none on any DNC credit card, and calls totaling $24.20 were presumably made on government phones.
Throughout the solicitation controversy, even while defending themselves against specific allegations, White House officials have said that laws relating to the use of government properties and telephones do not apply to the president and vice president.
Records compiled by Gore's attorneys show that Gore was seeking soft money contributions because he was calling potential donors for contributions of at least $25,000, which is $5,000 more than the $20,000 hard money maximum allowed under federal election law.
At the time, the party was almost desperate for hard money because it could be pumped directly into the Clinton-Gore campaign and used for advertising and other campaign-specific activities.
It is more difficult to raise large amounts of hard money because of the legal limit. In addition to the $20,000 cap, corporations and labor unions are barred from giving hard money, which must come from individuals.
It is not clear how the DNC decided to allocate the money raised by Gore, but his role in soliciting the funds is clear, in some cases, from the records. For example, on Feb. 1, 1996, the DNC prepared a sheet for Gore recommending that he call Robert L. Johnson, the head of Black Entertainment Television, and suggesting that the vice president "ask him" for $30,000 for the DNC media campaign.
Four days later, on Feb. 5, Gore spoke with Johnson, according to a letter Gore sent on that date. "Thank you for your commitment to make an additional contribution of $30,000," the letter said.
On Feb. 14, the DNC deposited the $30,000 from Johnson, splitting it into $20,000 for the federally regulated hard money account and $10,000 for the unregulated soft money account.
Gore's letter raises another possible problem. He wrote that "President Clinton and I thank you. . . . We appreciate your dedication to our Administration." An FEC regulation says that if a party solicitation includes a "reference to a federal candidate or a federal election," the "solicitation shall be subject to" federal election law.
Other Gore thank-you letters contain the same language. In another call sheet prepared for Gore on Feb. 1, 1996, he was asked to call William B. Dockser, head of CRI Inc., a real estate development firm based in Rockville. "Ask him to send in $25,000 to fund the media campaign," a notation on the call sheet said. The thank-you letter was dated four days later, and it included a reference to Clinton, then running for reelection. The $25,000 contributed by Dockser was split a week later, with $20,000 going to the DNC's hard money account and $5,000 to the soft money account.
Dockser said in an interview yesterday that the full $25,000 was supposed to go to the DNC's soft money account. Dockser said the vice president called him and they spoke for about 10 minutes. "He talked about the Democratic Party and its needs to counter the Republican Party," Dockser said, adding that the discussion "was clearly focused on the reelection" campaign of Clinton and Gore.
Another Feb. 1, 1996, call sheet requested that Gore call George Marcus, president of a California real estate firm, and ask him to give $50,000. Eleven days later, the DNC split Marcus's contribution, with the $20,000 maximum going to the hard money account and $30,000 to the soft money account.
On Feb. 5, 1996, Gore placed a call to E. Blake Byrne, then an executive at Argyle Television, according to a thank-you note Gore sent to Byrne later that day. Fifteen days later, a contribution of $20,000 was recorded in Byrne's name to the DNC's hard money account and another, for $5,000, to the soft money account. In all, Byrne contributed more than $74,000 to the DNC.
In another case, Gore was asked on Nov. 22, 1995, to call Sanford Robertson, chairman of Robertson, Stephens and Co. in San Francisco, and request a $100,000 soft money donation. On Jan. 23, 1996, Robertson's $100,000 was split, with $20,000 going to the hard money account and $80,000 to the soft money account.
On April 22, 1996, Gore was asked to solicit Peter Angelos, owner of the Baltimore Orioles. A month later, on May 24, Angelos's $100,000 was split, with $20,000 going to the hard money account and $80,000 to the soft money account.
Researcher Jeff Glasser contributed to this report.
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