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Gore: Calls Broke No Law

By John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 4, 1997; Page A01

Facing a new barrage of questions about his role in Democratic fund-raising, Vice President Gore yesterday asserted he had broken no laws but said he would no longer make telephone solicitations from his office because the calls had aroused such "concern and comment."

Ending a months-long strategy of refusing to talk at length about the controversy over Democratic money, Gore said at a hastily arranged, late-afternoon news conference that he was "very proud" of the millions of dollars he raised in last year's campaign, including what he described as "the few occasions" when he phoned prospective donors from his office in the West Wing of the White House.

But on whether such calls are legal – federal law prohibits fund-raising on government property – Gore fell back seven times in 24 minutes on a precise phrasing he said had been supplied by his lawyer.

"My counsel advises me, let me repeat, that there is `no controlling legal authority' that says that any of these activities violated any law," Gore said, adding that he charged the calls to a Democratic National Committee credit card.

To avoid controversy, Gore said, he will not make solicitations from his office or home in the future. But aides said he was not ruling out fund-raising phone calls from non-government property.

His explanation came as the White House released a 1995 memo from then-presidential counsel Abner J. Mikva instructing employees that "no fund-raising phone calls or mail may emanate from the White House or any other federal building." But Gore said this applied to White House staff, not to him or the president.

As Gore used it, aides said, the "no controlling legal authority" phrase means there are apparently no precedents to clarify the question of legality. But the furor that threatened to engulf Gore concerned not merely the technical question of where he placed his phone calls. Of far broader consequence for the man who hopes to succeed President Clinton were questions about whether he had used proper judgment while helping the DNC raise record sums over the past two years.

A story in Sunday's Washington Post, which detailed Gore's aggressive fund-raising practices, quoted previous vice presidents as saying they had not made direct solicitations. The story, based on about 100 interviews, quoted some DNC donors as saying they were made uncomfortable by such high-level appeals. Gore's ability to reel in gifts from people who had been identified as potential donors, an aide said, led him to be known within the White House as the "solicitor-in-chief."

Gore said yesterday he had never heard that term. And he dismissed a complaint from one contributor that his calls amounted to a "shakedown" of donors.

"Well, I cannot explain to you what some anonymous source wants to say," Gore said. "I can tell you this, that I never, ever said or did anything that would have given rise to a feeling like that on the part of someone who was asked to support our campaign. I never did that, and I never would do that."

But the latest development caused a marked change in Gore's approach to the fund-raising controversy. For months, he has sought to keep a wide distance from the furor, even as it has immersed Clinton and the DNC. During the fall campaign, he turned his back on reporters asking about his attendance at a DNC fund-raiser at a Buddhist temple. And, for four months before the publication of Sunday's story, he declined repeated requests to talk in detail about his fund-raising practices.

This wall crumbled yesterday. Administration officials said Gore resolved to answer questions after he watched White House press secretary Michael McCurry on television at yesterday's daily news briefing.

The number of questions McCurry fielded made it clear that the controversy over Gore's fund-raising wasn't likely to simply drift away. And McCurry's answers, based on what Gore's office had been able to tell him yesterday morning, hardly disposed of the issue.

McCurry could not say whether Gore had placed his calls from government offices, or whether Clinton knew that Gore was making telephone solicitations. "I don't know the degree of his awareness or unawareness," McCurry said.

Gore, officials said, spent the afternoon in meetings with White House lawyers and advisers, fashioning his response. Some said he was alarmed by the brewing controversy, fearing it could dash what until recently has been an unquestioned ethics record.

"I never did anything that I thought was wrong," Gore said at the news conference. "If there had been a shred of doubt in my mind that anything I did was a violation of law, I assure you I would not have done that."

Gore said he had no discussions with Clinton on the topic before making the calls, and volunteered to make them following meetings with "our top campaign advisers." The advisers gave him names of people to call to help build "a larger budget to put advertisements on television."

Gore's answers seemed to acknowledge something the White House had been loath to say publicly – that there was no obvious difference between the Clinton-Gore campaign and the DNC.

When it accepted $62 million in public funds for the fall campaign, the Clinton-Gore campaign agreed to abide by spending limits. The DNC operation – at least in theory – was supposed to be separate, devoted generally to strengthening the party and not narrowly to electing Clinton and Gore. As a practical matter, both Republicans and Democrats ignored this. And Gore made plain yesterday that he was soliciting donations at the suggestion of his campaign aides, who said the money was urgently needed to support his reelection.

Asked about his apparent admission that the lines had blurred, Gore fell back on the previous White House line. "No, there was a clear distinction" between the DNC and the Clinton-Gore campaign. "There was a separate message. There were separate legal requirements."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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