Attorney General Janet Reno's refusal to appoint an independent counsel to probe Vice President Al Gore's alleged political fundraising abuses is another brick in the enormous stone wall the Clinton Administration has built to hide its widespread violation of campaign fundraising laws.
Gore stands accused of raising campaign funds for the 1996 Clinton/Gore reelection campaign in an illegal manner and misleading government investigators about what happened. He solicited donations by phone from his White House office in violation of a law prohibiting political fundraising on federal property, but Reno initially let Gore slide because he claimed there was "no controlling legal authority" restricting his actions since he was only raising "soft money" donations to support the Democratic Party's media efforts rather than strictly-regulated "hard money" funds to directly benefit candidates. Reno claims Gore's soft money fundraising did not violate the law.
Recently released information, however, questions Reno's thesis that Gore's fundraising was legal and raises concerns that Gore was not telling the truth. Gore told Justice Department prosecutors and FBI agents in November of 1997 that his White House calls were strictly for the Democratic Party, but notes taken by former Gore deputy chief of staff David Strauss at a Democratic National Committee (DNC) finance meeting two years earlier cast doubt on Gore's sincerity. Strauss quoted Gore enthusiastically telling the 14 other participants at that meeting to "count me in on the [fundraising] calls," and noted the formula "65% soft/35% hard" as the goal of the fundraising effort. It's hard to believe Gore was unaware he was raising money for candidates. If he knew, he purposely covered up his illegal activities when questioned.
Reno said the subsequent investigation provided such "a range of impressions and vague misunderstandings" among the other meeting participants that "there is no evidence that [Gore] heard the statements or understood their implications." Even though the Clinton/Gore reelection effort was highly effective at raising money, Reno paints those running it as buffoons. Based on this buffoon theory, she denied demands from Congress, FBI Director Louis Freeh and even investigators in her own Justice Department to appoint an independent counsel to further probe the matter.
Even the timing of the Gore investigation appeared politically motivated. Starting the 90-day independent counsel review process in August guaranteed any potentially embarrassing revelations would not be made public until after November's mid-term elections.
During the last session of Congress, the White House supported campaign finance regulation proposed by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Russ Feingold (D-WI) that would ban soft money contributions to political parties altogether. Despite supporting this increase in fundraising regulation, which some say would limit the free speech rights of ordinary Americans to participate in the political process, the Clinton Administration was never forthcoming about the fact that it is one of the largest benefactors of such contributions.
Embracing the call for increased campaign finance regulation is a win-win prospect for the Clinton Administration. Prominent legislation like the McCain-Feingold proposal restricts the giving ability of political action committees and donors that tend to support Republicans, but does little to limit labor unions from using member dues without permission to fund union leaders' almost exclusively Democratic giving habits. When the White House is caught cheating, as in Gore's case, the Clinton Administration spins away the scandal by calling for further regulation of campaign fundraising. They appear as the good guys, effectively brushing talk of their lawbreaking out of the public eye.
When the 106th Congress convenes in January, the reintroduction of legislation
to further regulate political fundraising is inevitable. President Clinton
and Vice President Gore will most likely express their enthusiastic support
of further regulation, and use their support as a political weapon against
their critics. Those in Congress concerned about the restrictions of free
political speech these new regulations may impose should not buckle to White
House political pressure. Instead, they should point out President Clinton's
and Vice President Gore's willingness to take advantage of the fundraising
tactics they claim to loathe, and their unwillingness to instruct the attorney
general to appoint an independent counsel to investigate alleged campaign
David W. Almasi is editor of Political Money Monitor, a publication of The National Center for Public Policy Research. He can be reached via e-mail at: DAlmasi@nationalcenter.org.