Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 4, 1997;
The Justice Department announced yesterday that it has launched a review of Vice President Gore's solicitation of campaign contributions by telephone from his White House office to determine if they warrant a full-scale investigation that could lead to appointment of an independent counsel.
The review was triggered by records released by Gore's office showing that $120,000 he solicited had not been deposited into relatively unregulated "soft money" accounts by the Democratic National Committee as Gore had maintained but instead had gone into legally restricted "hard money" accounts.
In previous reviews of allegations related to the wide-ranging campaign finance controversy, Attorney General Janet Reno has said she had no basis to consider appointment of an independent counsel because no pertinent campaign finance law had been broken and no senior government official was involved.
Both the "hard money" deposits, and Gore's involvement, have brought both those questions into new consideration.
One of many outstanding questions, Justice Department officials said yesterday, is whether Gore who has said he solicited only "soft money" was aware that the DNC used the money for other purposes and whether that matters under the law. In statements Tuesday to The Washington Post, both the White House and the DNC said he was not aware.
"Obviously, that's a key thing to be looked at," one official said.
Steve Langdon, a DNC spokesman, said last night that "as with all investigations into fund-raising activities, we will cooperate fully."
Separately, sources said the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating campaign fund-raising actions, has obtained depositions showing that a Buddhist temple that hosted a controversial fund-raiser last year illegally reimbursed Democratic contributors at five other fund-raisers. The committee will hear testimony today from temple employees and from a top Gore official.
The Justice Department review begun yesterday is a first step in the legal process required for Reno to determine whether there is "specific and credible" evidence for her to recommend appointment of an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising improprieties, a move she has so far resisted despite growing pressure from Republicans on Capitol Hill.
Under the Independent Counsel Act, the review must be completed in 30 days. If at the end of that period, officials determine there is enough evidence to warrant further inquiry, Reno is obliged to open a 90-day preliminary investigation to determine whether an independent counsel should be appointed.
Justice Department officials characterized the review as identical to several others conducted in response to requests from members of Congress this year and said that the level of inquiry will be the same as it has been in regard to numerous other reports of illegal fund-raising in the 1996 Clinton reelection campaign. So far none of those reviews has produced allegations sufficiently weighty to trigger the next stage in the independent counsel process.
"The Justice Department is reviewing allegations to determine whether the vice president illegally solicited campaign contributions on federal property should warrant a preliminary investigation under the Independent Counsel Act," said a statement issued by the department press office last night.
The statement marked the first time that the department has publicly announced that it has initiated a 30-day review of any particular allegations. Last spring, Gore acknowledged making solicitation phone calls from his White House office but suggested there were only a few such calls. Last week, the White House released documents showing Gore phoned 80 potential donors from the White House and reached 46, from whom he solicited soft-money contributions. The Washington Post reported yesterday that more than $120,000 contributed from eight of the 46 donors solicited by Gore went into a federally regulated hard-money DNC account.
Charles Burson, Gore's chief counsel, said in a statement last night, "We've cooperated fully with the Department of Justice, and, of course, we will continue to do so. We remain confident that no law or regulation was violated."
White House officials declined to comment any further, noting that the matter was now before the Justice Department. However, earlier in the day, before Reno's decision was known, administration officials maintained that the issue of hard money vs. soft money was largely irrelevant because Gore's telephone calls did not violate the solicitation law in either case.
Under the White House interpretation, Gore's calls were legal because they went to potential donors who were not on federal property. The century-old prohibition on federal officials soliciting or receiving campaign contributions in federal office space used for the "discharge of official duties" was intended to protect government workers from being pressed for money on the job, administration lawyers argue, not to prevent the sort of activity Gore was engaged in.
The depositions obtained by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee show that the California Buddhist temple that hosted the April 1996 fund-raiser attended by Gore was involved in an illegal scheme to reimburse temple monastics and devotees $29,000 in additional contributions to the Democratic Party and Democratic candidates over a four-year period, according to a congressional source probing campaign finance abuses.
It has been previously reported that the temple, under pressure to raise more money by an associate of John Huang, the former DNC fund-raiser at the center of the controversy, approached monastics or devotees the day after the temple event and asked them to write checks to the Democratic National Committee. The temple subsequently reimbursed about a dozen individuals.
It is illegal to finance a political donation officially listed in the name of another.
Langdon, the DNC spokesman, said officials there had reviewed all contributions received between 1994 and 1996 and returned all those it deemed questionable. He said the Senate committee "has not shared information with the DNC that suggests we should return additional contributions. However, if and when they choose to do so, we will do as we have always done. We will review the additional information and take appropriate action if necessary."
A committee source said yesterday that the temple's straw donor system had been used to make political contributions dating to September 1993.
According to the committee source, there were five additional Democratic fund-raisers at which Hsi Lai temple monastics or devotees made contributions and were then reimbursed by the temple.
According to the committee, in addition to improper donations previously reported in connection with the Hsi Lai temple and two other fund-raisers, straw donors from the temple made an additional $29,000 in improper contributions.
Staff writers Peter Baker and Helen Dewar contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company