President Clinton took out about $400,000 in personal loans from one small Arkansas bank when he was governor of Arkansas, the banker, a former Clinton aide, said yesterday. The money was used for his political campaigns and to promote a state education initiative, and at least part of the debt was repaid with donations from corporations.
W. Maurice Smith, Clinton's top gubernatorial aide until 1985, said in an interview yesterday that Clinton took out between a half-dozen and a dozen unsecured loans between 1983 and 1988 from his Bank of Cherry Valley.
He estimated that about $300,000 of the money lent to Clinton went to campaigns, though Clinton's gubernatorial campaign records show only one $50,000 personal loan to the candidate during those years.
It was previously known that Clinton had raised private money to fund advertising for several legislative programs, but not all the donors were identified publicly. It was not known that some of the money was used to repay Clinton's personal loans.
The White House was unable yesterday to fully explain the loans, first reported by the Associated Press.
Betsey Wright, a former Clinton aide who oversaw the raising and spending of the funds, said in an interview last night from the White House that she turned over her records to Robert B. Fiske, the special counsel investigating Clinton's finances in the Whitewater land deal.
Fiske is investigating whether taxpayer-insured funds from Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan were diverted to pay off the $50,000 campaign loan from Cherry Valley in 1984. Madison was owned by James B. McDougal, the Clintons' business partner in the Whitewater land venture, which itself had borrowed from Smith's bank.
Wright said her records were incomplete so she couldn't elaborate on how much of the Cherry Valley loans were used to promote legislative initiatives and how much were used for the governor's reelection campaigns. Though Clinton borrowed the money from the bank in his name personally, she said, he never saw the money and "not one penny ever went for the Clintons' personal use."
Wright, who is a Washington lobbyist, said she will not release copies of the documents showing the identity of the donors who paid off the loans or how the money was spent. "They are in my custody and I will not release them until Mr. Fiske has completed his task," she said.
"Clinton went out and raised money from the business community to put ads on the media. It was a well-known part of his efforts to move the state forward," said White House aide John Podesta. Two lists of contributors who donated a total of $120,000 to Clinton legislative initiatives in 1988 and 1989 were released publicly at the time.
Smith said he knew of only one legislative initiative funded by his bank. It lent Clinton $100,000 in 1983 to push for education reform in a special session of the legislature. Arkansas corporations, including Tyson Foods, Worthen Bank, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and TCBY made contributions to an education reform fund that paid off Clinton's loan, Smith said.
"It was my idea," Smith said of the first loan. "We needed the money right quick to promote this education program. I knew I could get my board to okay it."
Smith said the money was in no way a personal or political slush fund for Clinton. "I guarantee if he'd had one I'd have known about it."
Smith said his bank also made a series of loans for Clinton campaigns, none for more than $100,000. He said all were repaid.
Smith, who also served as Clinton's finance chairman, said he does not believe any of the donations that went toward repaying the campaign loans exceeded the $1,500 campaign limit. Some of the donations to promote Clinton's legislative agenda were higher, including one for $25,000 from a TCBY executive.
Smith remains close to the Clintons. He said he traveled to Washington in March and spent the night at the White House.
The Cherry Valley bank charged market interest rates on Clinton's loans, Smith said. The Clintons didn't take any deductions for interest payments on loans at Smith's bank during that period, their tax records show.
Borrowing the money personally and having someone else repay the loans "raises serious questions of taxable income for the Clintons unless they have proof that all the money was for the good of the state and none for themselves personally," said a former high-ranking IRS official. Wright said state law covering political loans, including those for promoting legislation, permitted Clinton to use donations to pay them off.
Scott Trotter, executive director of Common Cause of Arkansas, said Wright's records should be made public.
William Bowen, former head of First Commercial Bank and a former Clinton chief of staff, said he remembers contributing to Clinton's efforts to improve public education in Arkansas but was unaware the money was paying off a loan. He said the "mechanics" of the fund did not concern him.
Staff writer Howard Schneider contributed to this report.