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Soft Money, No Crime?

By Michael Kelly
Thursday, November 27, 1997; Page A29

With the Clinton administration, the synchronicity between leak and spin has always been a thing of beauty. So, as the leaks spread in recent days that Janet Reno was about to officially refuse to appoint an independent counsel in the Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising scam, it was unsurprising to see the sugar already appropriately spun.

You might not agree with Reno, but you had to respect her decision. "Even her severest Republican critics acknowledge that she possesses remarkable personal integrity and is not motivated by political ambition," puffed an eclair of a piece on the front page of the New York Times. "Despite . . . the inevitable criticism, few people sincerely doubt Reno's integrity," sweet-talked a Napoleon in the New Yorker.

Actually, sincerely, no.

In the early autumn of 1996, the press first reported that the Clinton-Gore campaign and the White House had massively subverted federal election laws by raising tens of millions in so-called "soft money" contributions intended to be used to build the Democratic Party and spent that money on a $40 million-plus television campaign controlled by and on behalf of candidates Clinton and Gore. This was an apparently clear violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act, and it also raised the question of whether an independent counsel must be appointed.

The independent counsel law covers about 70 officials of the executive branch, chief among them the president and the vice president. The attorney general is required to request an independent counsel whenever there is "specific and credible" information that a "covered" person "may have violated" federal law unless there is "clear and compelling evidence" that the covered person lacked the "state of mind required for the violation of criminal law."

The White House said the fund-raising in question didn't have anything to do with anyone in the "most ethical administration in the history of the Republic," as the president used to say, but had been cooked up by rogue operators at the DNC. And this line of defense promptly became the official judgment of the attorney general. The allegations, the Reno Justice Department announced, involved "lower-ranking public officials, [DNC] employees and contributors." Nobody here but us noncovered persons.

Then, in March 1997, covered person Al Gore faced the press and admitted that he had, on "a few occasions," (it turned out to be a few more than a few: 86) solicited contributions to the DNC from his office, an apparently clear violation of U.S. Criminal Code 607 and 603, which derive from the Pendleton Act, and which forbid soliciting for political contributions in any place used for federal government business. Reno immediately offered a new line of defense: no crime, no problem, because the money that Gore admitted to soliciting was soft money, not "hard" federally covered campaign contributions of up to $10,000.

The new line held until September, when Bob Woodward reported in The Post that more than $120,000 of the money Gore solicited had in fact been funneled into the DNC's "hard money" accounts. Whoops. Reno finally agreed to a preliminary independent counsel inquiry – but she limited the inquiry into only the very small and narrow question of whether the telephone calls from the White House violated the Pendleton Act, ruling out from inquiry the larger and far more dangerous question of the wholesale violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act. Now she is apparently prepared to say, in essence, that the allegations at hand are too small and narrow to merit prosecution. You don't have to admire her integrity, but you must marvel at her nerve.

In the past year, we have seen Buddhist nuns testify to laundering money solicited at the vice president's visit to their temple. We have seen Johnny Chung tell how he bought access to the president for his Chinese government clients by giving the first lady's chief of staff a check for $50,000. We have seen Roger Tamraz tell how his $300,000 won him a personal presidential order to reassess the government's policy not to back Tamraz's oil pipeline project. We have seen no fewer than three Clinton Cabinet secretaries – first Ron Brown, then Hazel O'Leary, now Bruce Babbitt – accused of selling government favors to big contributors. We have seen evidence of the Clinton-Gore fund-raising campaign soliciting and masking illegal contributions from foreign nationals and from agents of the People's Republic of China. (The latest evidence, concerning one Ted Sioeng, who joined Clinton and Gore for dinner after his daughter gave the DNC $250,000 in suspect cash, appeared, inconveniently, in this week's Newsweek).

We have seen all this, but Reno's Justice is apparently blind. Or something.

Michael Kelly is a senior writer for National Journal.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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