RICHMOND, DEC. 12 -- Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder said today he will use profits from his inaugural celebration for political activities designed to raise his national profile, but would not pledge to tell state or federal election officials how he spends the money.
Wilder said through a spokeswoman that he intends to use the money for "political activities" that probably will include out-of-state travel and campaigning for candidates outside Virginia. Wilder is widely believed to be angling for the Democratic nomination for president or vice president in 1992.
Public interest groups said today that Wilder risks violating state and federal campaign spending laws if he does not formally register his group as a political action committee or if he spends contributions from sources barred under those laws.
"It sounds like you've got just a whole lot of unregulated money sitting around for someone who is thinking about running for president," said Ellen Miller, of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington, a group that follows election law.
Wilder aides initially said today that they would not disclose the sources of the governor's inaugural profits or the political activities the money is spent on because Wilder's committee was not covered by campaign laws.
Later today, the attorney for Wilder's inaugural committee, Robert J. Grey Jr., said the governor will comply with federal and state laws, but said Wilder is not yet prepared to take a position on which laws cover his committee.
Wilder has been dogged by questions about money raised and spent in connection with last January's inaugural ball. He has refused to follow the precedent set by his immediate predecessor, fellow Democrat Gerald L. Baliles, who voluntarily disclosed details of his inaugural fund-raising and spending.
Wilder had been criticized for his use of surplus political funds before. After his 1985 election as lieutenant governor, Wilder announced formation of the "Underdog Fund," ostensibly to help candidates facing long odds. Not many candidates received its help, however, and much of the money was turned over to Wilder's 1989 gubernatorial campaign.
If Wilder eventually becomes a national candidate, the money he spent from his inaugural fund would have to be disclosed under federal elections law, according to legal experts. Even if Wilder confines himself to campaigning for other aspirants for federal office, the inaugural committee may be required to file as a political action committee, they said.
Fred Eiland, a spokesman for the Federal Elections Commission, declined to comment specifically on Wilder's case. He said the law requires anyone who raises or spends more than $1,000 to influence a federal election to file with the agency as a political action committee and report contributions and expenses every three months.
Published lists showing who paid for special VIP tables at the inauguration costing as much as $7,500 each show that Wilder raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from scores of lobbyists, law firms and corporations.
Laura Dillard, the governor's press secretary, said Wilder broke his silence on his inaugural fund this week in an interview with the Washington Times because of the "insinuation that he would spend it on personal items." No money from Wilder's fund has yet been spent for political purposes, Dillard and Grey said.
Much of the money Wilder raised at the inauguration could not be legally spent through a political action committee organized under federal election laws or in a presidential campaign. Money from corporations, for example, cannot be accepted under federal law, and contributions from individuals are limited to $1,000 in most instances, according to campaign finance experts.
Some Republican critics said Wilder also should register his group as a political action committee with election authorities in Virginia. State law defines a political action committee as an organization "established or maintained to receive and expend contributions for political purposes" -- a definition that seems to include Wilder's proposed activities.
"The way I look at the law, it's a PAC," Steve Haner, director of the GOP legislative caucus, said about Wilder's inaugural fund.
Michael Brown, secretary of the state Board of Elections, could not be reached for an interpretation of Virginia's law. Brown was appointed by Wilder and is his nephew.
Wilder's chief political confidant, state Democratic Party Chairman Paul Goldman, registered a political action committee with federal authorities last month. It is called the Committee for Fiscal Responsibility in 1992 and is widely viewed as a stalking horse for Wilder's national ambitions.
"There is no connection," Goldman said, between his PAC and the inaugural fund.