President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton yesterday established an unprecedented defense fund to help them pay legal fees for the Whitewater investigation and the Paula Corbin Jones lawsuit that could run as high as $2 million annually.
The fund will not accept contributions from corporations, labor unions, political action committees or other organizations. The donations and outlays will be reported twice yearly.
But in a recognition of the fact that lobbyists constitute a fertile source of fund-raising, Clinton will accept contributions of up to $1,000 annually from the Washington lobbyists whose activities he decried during the campaign and since taking office.
"The model we were following is the campaign contribution law which allows individual contributions," a senior official said yesterday, explaining the decision not to prohibit contributions by lobbyists. "We didn't feel we should bar individuals who choose to give money of their own accord on a voluntary basis."
The official also pointed to the "impossibility of policing" a prohibition on lobbyist contributions because of the practical difficulty of identifying lobbyists. "One thousand dollars a year is not going to curry favor on behalf of any lobbyist," the official said.
White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said the Clintons decided to establish the fund because "it's in the best interest of the country and the president" to have the large legal bills paid, and the Clintons could not afford it on his $200,000 salary.
In a statement, the chairmen of the fund, the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh and former attorney general Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, said: "No previous president has had to face the enormous personal legal expenses confronting President Clinton. Whatever the merits or motivations of these proceedings, we believe it is in the public interest to assist the president in meeting a financial burden that could otherwise distract him from performing his public responsibilities."
Also on the board of trustees overseeing the fund are two Republicans, former attorney general Elliot L. Richardson and former secretary of state John Whitehead; former Democratic representatives Barbara Jordan of Texas and John Brademas of Indiana; Los Angeles lawyer Ronald Olson; former Columbia University president Michael Sovern, and Michael Cardozo, an investment banker who was White House deputy counsel for President Jimmy Carter.
Clinton's advisers had initially considered a contribution limit of $500 but decided to opt for the higher figure and pointed to that amount as the cap placed on campaign contributions.
In his campaign book, "Putting People First," Clinton described the previous 12 years of Republican administrations as "nothing less than an extended hunting season for high-priced lobbyists and Washington influence peddlers."
After taking office, Clinton proposed a campaign finance reform bill that would prohibit lobbyists from contributing money to those they lobby. "Particularly, we have taken aim at the lobbyists who symbolize the reason that nothing ever seems to get done here in this city," Clinton said in unveiling the proposal.
The Clintons are paying legal fees stemming from the independent counsel investigation into their failed Whitewater real estate development and to defend against the lawsuit filed against the president by Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who alleges that Clinton sexually harassed her.
Although the Clintons may be reimbursed for some of the Whitewater fees with the passage of a new independent counsel act, a White House official said that at most they would be able to recover $40-$75 an hour -- far less than the reported $300 to $400 an hour charged by their Whitewater lawyer, David Kendall of Williams & Connolly. Robert S. Bennett, the lawyer handling the Jones case, charges a reported $475 hourly fee.
"I don't know that we know how much we will need," White House special counsel Lloyd N. Cutler said. "It will clearly be many times the president's salary." A senior official said that, since news reports about the plans for a legal defense fund, a "significant number of checks" -- including one "in the five figures" -- had been sent to the White House.
Cardozo, who is serving as executive director of the fund, said the trustees had ruled out holding fund-raising "events," such as dinners or other galas to solicit contributions.
The rules governing the Clinton fund are far stricter than those imposed on similar defense funds for members of Congress. Senators may accept contributions as high as $10,000 yearly, including from political action committees, special-interest groups, corporations, unions and other groups. House members may take up to $5,000, also from a broad array of groups.
The first two contributors to the Presidential Legal Expense Trust are the Clintons themselves, who each gave the $1,000 maximum.