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The Government Store

Wednesday, August 27 1997; Page A18

Our knowledge of the Selling of the Presidency, 1996, continues to grow. It's a depressing, squalid record. The office has been demeaned. Sponsors of legislation to reform the system of campaign finance are threatening to tie up the Senate when it reconvenes next month if the resisting Republican leadership won't agree to bring the measure to a vote. They ought to tie it up; the Senate has nothing of comparable importance to do. The latest disclosures, barely a week's worth, merely underscore the extent to which the rules have been bent. The politicians say policy isn't for sale, and maybe it's not, but there sure are a lot of canny folks hanging around the government who haven't gotten the word.

(1) In August of last year, the chairman and chief executive officer of Federal Express bought his way into the White House for a 45-minute, one-on-one session with the president to discuss a trade issue – a restrictive practice on the part of the Japanese – that was costing his company lucrative business in Asia. The chairman, Frederick Smith, wanted the administration, in talks with the Japanese, to take a tougher stand on the issue than the United States had in the past.

The issue is legitimate enough. But three weeks after what even the White House concedes was an unusual meeting – individual businessmen pressing such causes are rarely granted exclusive access to the president – Federal Express gave $100,000 to the Democratic National Committee, part of the $275,000 contributed during an eight-month period last year. White House and FedEx spokesmen alike profess shock at the notion that the visit and the contribution might somehow have been connected. "We just don't know how this and other meetings came to be," said Lanny Davis, the White House lawyer who is paid to stretch credulity on such occasions. Mr. Smith, whose company gave an even larger amount to Republican committees in the last cycle, was far more direct when asked whether, as a general matter, he and others in like positions felt pressure when asked to make such contributions. "Sure, you're darn right, you better be responsive," he said. "Whether you use the language of the street and call it a shakedown, or whether you just call it our system – however you put it – it's a messy system."

(2) Executives of Unique Gems International Corp., a disbanded Miami company that authorities say may have bilked 15,000 people out of $38 million in recent years, used third parties to contribute $85,000 to the DNC last fall. The contributions allowed them to attend a fund-raiser at which some had their photographs taken with the president; the photographs were then used in the company's promotional material. The White House discovered that and sent a letter of protest about it two months after the company had shut down. The ubiquitous Mr. Davis complains about donors who "misused the privilege of meeting the president at these [fund-raising] events," and once again about the "lax and seriously inadequate" procedures that the DNC used to vet those who attended. But of course the DNC was no more than an arm of the White House or – same thing – the Clinton campaign in this period; it was the president himself who was flogging aides to raise funds; and on a number of occasions when efforts in fact were made to keep prospective donors with questionable backgrounds from meeting with the president, the aides who were trying to protect him were overruled by the generally closer aides who wanted the bucks.

(3) The notion that the administration might be – how to put it? – receptive to contributions seems not to have been confined to the White House, the DNC and the presidential campaign. Johnny Chung, the California businessman who appears to have made a specialty of laundering such contributions from abroad, claims to have been asked to make a $25,000 contribution to a charity favored by former energy secretary Hazel O'Leary in return for a meeting the secretary agreed to have with one of his clients, a Chinese businessman. The secretary denies having asked for, or having authorized anyone else to ask for, the contribution, which in fact was made. The aide named by Mr. Chung also denies having asked for it. The Justice Department is investigating.

(4) There was at least discussion last year of a scheme whereby the Teamsters union would increase its contributions to Democratic campaign efforts in return for increased contributions by individual Democratic donors to the reelection campaign of Teamster President Ron Carey. The effect would have been to move money from the union treasury to Mr. Carey's campaign at one remove, a violation of at least the spirit of union election law. DNC officials say it never happened. There continues to be Justice Department and congressional investigation of that, as well.

To finance their elections, the politicians have put a for-sale sign on the government. That's where we are. They have got to impose new limits on the giving and getting of these funds. The current system, unconstrained, will end up doing serious harm. The politicians who are its supposed beneficiaries will be among its victims, and with cause.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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