WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee collected $27 million from guests who attended White House coffee klatches with President Clinton over the last two years, newly available records show.
Many of those who were invited to the White House for private chats with Clinton and senior administration officials made substantial contributions to the Democratic Party within days of the events.
The records raise new questions about whether the Democratic Party used the White House and personal audiences with the president as part of a formal fund-raising program.
The administration and party officials have insisted that the sessions were appropriate and that guests were invited to the White House to share their views with the president, not for the purpose of soliciting campaign funds.
The pattern of donations suggests, however, that the 103 meetings between January 1995 and August 1996 were part of a system that cultivated major supporters who, in many cases, gave large contributions before or after attending the White House events.
"No one called people that afternoon after they got back to their offices and said: 'Would you give $50,000 today?' " said a source familiar with the DNC-sponsored coffees. "But they were obviously people [the fund-raisers] were working with" as donors or prospective donors.
While there is nothing illegal about White House meetings between the president and financial supporters, critics have charged that the large number of sessions and donations created the impression of a White House put up for sale.
"They gave $27 million--I am astounded by that figure," said Ellen Miller, director of Public Campaign, a nonpartisan reform organization in Washington. "This goes to show that ordinary Americans are not invited to the White House, only the fattest of the fat cats who can collectively give tens of millions of dollars."
A computer analysis of federal election records and a recently released White House guest list for the coffees found that the Democrats collected $27,018,553 in "soft-money" contributions from 358 people invited to meet with Clinton. The analysis was done for The Times by the independent Campaign Study Group of Springfield, Va.
Guests donated $8.7 million to the party within a month before or after attending a White House coffee, the study found.
For many of the participants, the invitation to share their views with Clinton was considered "a reward" for past financial and political support, said the source who is knowledgeable about the coffees but spoke under the condition of anonymity. But, the source added, others were contacted by Democratic fund-raising officials after the sessions and solicited for contributions.
The appeal, he said, went like this: "Can you be more helpful . . . ? Don't you think this guy's [Clinton] impressive? Wouldn't you like to see him continue to be president?"
Some of the contributions made around the same time as the coffees reflected money previously pledged. Sometimes a donor who committed to contribute in the future was then invited to an upcoming coffee as a 'thank you' and would bring the check with him.
"A lot of them could come into town and would bring their contribution," the source said. "It worked both ways."
The White House said that Clinton never discussed fund-raising at the coffees, which generally lasted for an hour and often took place in the Map Room.
Democratic spokeswoman Amy Weiss Tobe reiterated Monday that, while the party appreciated any financial support it received after it arranged the coffees, the events were not intended or organized as fund-raisers.
"It is our policy that people are not told that for a certain amount of money they can go to a White House function," Tobe said.
A Dec. 15, 1995, coffee featured a coterie of particularly heavy hitters: 20 executives and union leaders who, together with their organizations, gave $3.2 million in soft money to the party during the 1995-96 election cycle. Soft money can be used by the parties for general partisan activities or advertising, rather than for individual candidates, and can be collected in unlimited sums.
Richard C. Blum, a San Francisco financier and the husband of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), recalled that members of the Clinton-Gore national finance board had coffee with Clinton in the Roosevelt Room after a luncheon meeting that day. He said that Clinton gave an overview on the presidential race "in terms of issues [and] polling data and an update on his legislative agenda."