Wealthy Democratic contributors and large corporations have given more than $1 million since 1993 to upgrade and furnish Vice President Gore's official residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory.
Officials with the nonprofit foundation that raised the funds said the effort was necessary to preserve a 106-year-old government building that desperately needed improvements. But a political watchdog group said the donors could have been seeking to curry favor with Gore.
"This is yet another way for people to get in the good graces of people in power," said Peter Eisner, managing director of the Center for Public Integrity, which released a report on the fund-raising effort yesterday. "This money gives the vice president some level of comfort, and buys access" from him.
A number of the donors to the Vice President's Residence Foundation, which oversees improvements to the property, have business before the government. Last year, Microsoft chief executive Bill Gates, whose firm is facing Justice Department antitrust charges, gave a gift valued at $30,000: a hefty multicolored glass sculpture by a Seattle artist that spends most of the time in storage. In addition, a Gates foundation donated $10,000 in 1996.
Time Warner Inc., MCI, Atlantic Richfield Co., Enron Corp., Bell Atlantic Corp., Coca-Cola Co. and General Motors Corp. also contributed $10,000 each. Many of the donors are longtime contributors to Democratic causes--Jonathan Tisch, chairman of the Loews Hotel chain, gave $35,000, while New York investment banker Steven Rattner ponied up $10,000.
In 1997, tobacco executive Bennett LeBow--considered a renegade in his industry for saying cigarettes are addictive and dangerous--contributed $2,000 to the residence foundation. This year, Gore's presidential campaign returned a donation from LeBow, saying it doesn't accept tobacco money.
The Gore fund-raising effort was kicked off with $300,000 transferred from the Clinton-Gore inauguration in 1993. Longtime Gore aide and lobbyist Peter Knight headed the foundation until last year, when the job passed to Doug Hall, a former Commerce Department official who once worked at a Tennessee newspaper with Gore.
"This building is part of our government and shouldn't be allowed to deteriorate," Hall said. "These are permanent improvements to the structure and grounds that will remain there." He said the fund-raising effort is akin to donations made to maintain the White House, Blair House and other historic sites used to accommodate foreign dignitaries.
The funds, most of which were raised in 1997, have been devoted to modernizing the 33-room Victorian mansion on Embassy Row, including the installation of a hot tub and the refurbishing of the hardwood floors. Last year, $80,000 was spent on landscaping and the planting of bushes and trees native to the Washington area.
Some of the donors got in trouble after giving the money. In 1993, a $6,000 pool table was donated by Democratic fund-raiser Howard Glicken, who pleaded guilty last year to charges that he illegally raised funds for Senate candidates from foreign sources. Miami business owner Mark Jimenez gave the foundation $20,000 in 1995, and last year he was indicted for allegedly making illegal political contributions by funneling money through his computer firm.
The Bush family informally raised funds for the grounds when George Bush was vice president in the 1980s, and the Quayles formalized the effort by establishing the foundation in 1991. They raised $380,000 but never released the list of donors.
CAPTION: The 106-year-old Victorian mansion on the Embassy Row grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory is the official residence of the vice president.