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RNC Steered More Than $1 Million to Outside Groups (Washington Post, Oct. 23)

Democrats Ask ABC to Release 1996 Dole Tape (Washington Post, Oct. 23)

GOP Senators Press Harder for Independent Counsel

By Edward Walsh
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 23, 1997; Page A18

With time running out on their investigation into campaign finance abuses, Republicans on the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee yesterday stepped up their pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno to seek an independent counsel to investigate what they called "a conspiracy to evade the campaign laws" by President Clinton and his Democratic operatives.

Committee Chairman Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) said he will soon send a "legal brief" to Reno making the case for an independent counsel probe of three areas: alleged illegal foreign contributions to the Democratic National Committee; fund-raising on federal property that may have violated the law; and an attempt to evade spending limits for presidential campaigns through the widespread use of "issues advertising" paid for with largely unregulated contributions to the DNC.

"We can take this mass of facts right up to the courthouse door, but we can't break the door down," Thompson said. "We have laid out the facts that I think call for an independent counsel."

Last week, Reno told the House Judiciary Committee she is still exploring whether to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Clinton's fund-raising activities, and she has set in motion a process that could lead to such a probe of Vice President Gore. But Reno also told the House committee she had seen nothing in videotapes of Clinton and Gore meeting with wealthy supporters at the White House that suggested laws had been violated.

So far, the Senate panel has been frustrated in its investigation of foreign contributions-which Thompson promised would be the centerpiece of its activities-because key witnesses have threatened to invoke the Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination or have left the country.

The issue of Clinton's and Gore's telephone calls from the White House to donors has also attracted scant attention, with even Thompson publicly acknowledging that "everyone knows that no one is going to be prosecuted" under the murky provisions of a 19th century law that prohibits solicitation of political contributions on federal property.

So yesterday, with the recently released White House videotapes serving as the backdrop, GOP committee members began to emphasize a new theme: that the Clinton campaign deliberately set out to circumvent the spending limits written into the 1974, post-Watergate law that established the system of public funding of presidential campaigns.

Thompson showed excerpts from the videotapes yesterday, including one in which Clinton told supporters that "issues" television commercials that were sponsored by the DNC and paid for by largely unregulated "soft money" contributions to the party had boosted his poll standings by as much as 15 points in key states.

The crux of the Republican case against this practice is that the issues ads were actually White House-controlled Clinton reelection ads, a subterfuge that enabled Democrats to boost the president's reelection chances by spending more than the legal limit.

"What we had here that we'd never seen before was, in addition to taking [public] money, we had a campaign that spent another $44 million," Thompson said. "They found a way to have their cake and eat it too."

Other GOP senators invoked the same theme in what appeared to be a coordinated effort to spotlight the issue. "The illegal evasion of spending limits cannot be allowed to go unchallenged by this Congress or the attorney general," said Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).

But like so much else in the campaign financing investigation, the dispute over evading spending limits involved often narrow and conflicting legal interpretations. Outside the hearing room, White House and Democratic officials argued that, under Federal Election Commission guidelines, the issues ads were perfectly legal because they did not expressly advocate Clinton's reelection but could be produced in coordination with the Clinton campaign.

"This notion that the presidential candidate is not allowed to coordinate with the party is baseless," said Lyn Utrecht, general counsel for the Clinton-Gore campaign.

Committee Democrats also countered with their own videotape excepts, showing scenes of then-President Ronald Reagan thanking wealthy GOP donors at White House events, prompting Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) to describe yesterday's hearing as "the Senate version of going to the Blockbuster video store." The Democrats also distributed the text of a television interview in which former Senate majority leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), Clinton's 1996 opponent, explained how the Republican National Committee could pay for a "generic" television commercial on his life.

"The soft money cake was eaten by both parties," said Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.).

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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