Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 11, 1997; Page A06
The Washington Post
What did Vice President Gore know, and when did he know it? And, even more important: Does it matter?
Through testimony by Democratic National Committee general counsel Joseph E. Sandler and a careful review of DNC and White House documents, Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Republicans yesterday confirmed that Gore's White House fund-raising calls in late 1995 and early 1996 raised tens of thousands of dollars that were designated by the DNC as "hard money," which is subject to federal regulation.
The solicitation of regulated money from a federal building may constitute a violation of the law, potentially a crippling blow to Gore's presidential ambitions. But anybody who investigates the case whether it be the Justice Department, an independent counsel or a grand jury will have to show Gore's "intent" to break the law to have any chance at a successful prosecution.
And both senators and legal authorities agree that the relevant law which makes it "unlawful for any person to solicit or receive any contribution . . . in any room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties" has been tested only sparsely through history and may not apply in Gore's case.
At the very least, however, the committee demonstrated yesterday that DNC officials gave Gore ample opportunity to commit a felony by adhering to a fund-raising policy that automatically placed the first $20,000 contributed by any individual into a hard money account.
Under federal law, individuals can contribute up to $25,000 to political candidates and parties each year, and up to $20,000 to a political party organization. These "hard dollars" can be used for direct campaigning on a candidate's behalf.
"Soft money" is not subject to federal regulation, and can be raised in unspecified amounts from corporations and labor unions as well as individuals. It cannot be used on behalf of candidates, but in grass-roots organization, administration and other "party-building activities."
Hard money is harder to raise but more desirable because of its versatility. As an internal DNC memo released by the committee yesterday put it: "Every effort should be made to maximize the raising of federal money."
To do this, Sandler said, the DNC had a policy of depositing checks from large donors in hard money accounts, then transferring the excess over $20,000 into soft money accounts. The DNC asked donors for permission to do this after it had been done.
DNC officials thus knew that Gore was going to be raising hard money as he began making the storied phone calls in late 1995. In all, The Washington Post reported early this month, $120,000 went into hard money accounts.
"The important question is whether they told Gore, and whether Gore knew it," said election law specialist Kenneth Gross, who has represented Republicans and Democrats. "My feeling about this is that it is certainly credible for Gore not to have known that."
The committee Republicans went to great lengths yesterday to demonstrate the contrary, by showing that Gore at least had the opportunity to know the policy, which was enunciated in a memo addressed to him in early 1996.
But majority counsel Sandy Mattice acknowledged that the investigators had not thoroughly plumbed Gore's intent. "The question of Gore's state of mind is a whole different issue that we haven't gotten to yet," he told reporters.
And Gore's office disputed the relevance of the hearing memo, submitting memos of its own that described Gore's fund-raising campaign as an exclusively soft money effort.
GOP efforts to have Attorney General Janet Reno appoint an independent counsel appeared to have gotten a shot in the arm from all this, since her demurral earlier this year rested in large part on her belief that the Gore phone calls raised only soft money.
Still, said Gross, "to appoint an independent counsel when the vice president credibly did not know, would be a shame; you need to have intent."
And, even with an independent counsel, there is the question of whether the law itself applies to Gore's case because its original purpose was to prevent federal officeholders from "shaking down" their employees.
"This is a case where the intent of the statute is at odds with the wording," Gross said, which "would seem to prohibit anyone from soliciting on federal property."
Sandler and committee Democrats adopted the "shakedown theory," holding that the law applied only when the donor was on federal property. Mattice thought otherwise, noting that both parties maintained headquarters close to Congress so that "all those senators and congressmen could hoof it" from their offices to "dial for dollars" from a private building.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company