It can be decidedly dangerous to be Bill Clinton’s pal. Long before controversy erupted over how he raised money for his 1996 election campaign, Washington and Arkansas were littered with people who were once the President’s good, good friends—but found their involvement with him led only to legal nightmares or even jail time.
The latest crop of Friends of Bill who have lived to regret it could be seen last week getting the full Clinton treatment on videotapes released by the White House. “Hey there,
Johnnie, how ya doin’?” the President says as he 5 greets Johnny Chung, the California businessman and onetime Democratic party fund-raiser, and slaps him on the back. On another tape, Clinton warmly greets his “good friend” John Huang and drapes the presidential arm intimately around his shoulder. On a third recording, he jokes at a glitzy dinner with yet another benefactor, Arkansas restaurant owner Yah Lin Trie, saying that once neither of them could afford a ticket to such an event.
When Clinton needed their help and their cash, just 18 months ago, Chung,
Huang and Trie were in and out of the White House on a regular basis. These days, though, all three are radioactive in Washington, hiding out in Asia or invoking the Fifth Amendment to avoid testifying before inquiries into the Democrats’ questionable campaign fund-raising practices. They were responsible for most of the $4.1 million in illegal contributions that the Democrats were obliged to return because the money came from foreign sources. Their appearances on the videotapes, showing Clinton schmoozing with scores of donors and fund-raisers at grand dinners and intimate White House “coffees,” did not reveal anything illegal. But the President was embarrassed—as much for the way the tapes were made public as for what they showed.
More trouble over Clinton’s fund-raising
The first 44 tapes were turned over to investigators only on Oct. 4, six months after they were first requested by subpoena. They were recorded by White House video crews that shadow the President, taping his meetings for reasons of both public relations and posterity. But the White House officials responsible for complying with requests from congressional investigators and the U.S. justice department maintained they had no idea that the tapes existed. Only when a staff member typed the word “coffees” into an electronic database, they said, were the tapes located. Last week, the White House made public another 60 tapes, which again showed Clinton going about the business of stroking the people whose support he needed to raise the tens of millions of dollars for his re-election campaign. Attorney General Janet Reno, famous for her laconic reserve, allowed a rare flash of emotion when asked what she thought about the White House taking so long to cough up the videotapes. “I was mad,” she said.
Reno was angry in part because the White House told her about the tapes one day after she issued a letter to a congressional committee absolving the President of wrongdoing in connection with many of the accusations that have dogged him since his re-election a year ago. At issue was whether Clinton had solicited funds in return for political favors or improperly used the White House to entertain his financial benefactors through overnight stays or at the controversial “coffees.” Reno told Congress that a year-long investigation had not turned up sufficient evidence to warrant the appointment of an independent prosecutor. Then, she learned about the tapes. Nothing on them, she said later, would have changed her mind. But it left her wide open to criticism from Republicans like House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who said bluntly that “she looks like a fool.”
It was not the first time that Reno’s department has appeared inept in investigating allegations of wrongdoing in the White House. Justice department lawyers were not told about information the FBI turned up concerning Chinese campaign donations to Democratic candidates. And it was newspaper reports, not Reno’s department, that revealed that Vice-President AÍ Gore may have violated federal campaign regulations by making fund-raising phone calls from his White House office. As a result, Reno replaced the head of her investigation team with a more experienced lawyer.
The justice department is still looking into the President’s fund-raising activities—but its focus is so narrow that it is unlikely to lead to much. Last week, Reno ordered a 60-day extension of her inquiry into exactly where and how Clinton made phone calls to donors. If he directly asked for money while calling from his White House office or other government premises, he may have violated an 1883 law that forbids soliciting funds on federal property. If he did not ask for money, or if he made the calls from other places (even his private quarters in the White House), he is probably in the clear. The law is so ambiguous that no one—let alone a president—has ever been prosecuted under it for making calls.
Almost lost in all the procedural backand-forth is the substance of the issue: reforming the way American campaigns are financed. Just a few days after the first batch of videotapes was released, Republicans in the Senate used procedural manoeuvres to effectively kill the most widely debated proposal to limit how politicians can raise money, a bill sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Russell Feingold. Their measure would ban the unlimited and unregulated donations commonly known as “soft money,” but Republicans argue that it is too restrictive. The politicians, it would seem, will talk endlessly about campaign reform—and then do nothing about it. □
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