WASHINGTON — The intimate gathering at the White House in September 1995 presented a rare opportunity that Sacramento developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos was not about to pass up.
There Tsakopoulos sat, opposite the president of the United States, sipping coffee with nine other guests in a room where the course of World War II was charted. President Clinton began by asking how he could do a better job.
"I told the president . . . how the bureaucrats are going wild," Tsakopoulos recalled. His complaint: Federal regulators were blocking development of prime California real estate to save wetlands and the microscopic fairy shrimp that lived in them.
Tsakopoulos knew the issue all too well. At the time, his company--AKT Development Corp.--was locked in a nasty fight over the tiny organisms on 800 acres of pasture in southern Sacramento County that he planned to convert to vineyards. Despite federal warnings, his work crews went forward--without the required permits.
Nevertheless, Tsakopoulos in the end received a series of accommodations from three federal agencies involved in the issue, records and interviews show.
The story of Tsakopoulos is an example of how big contributors who participated in the coffee klatches, overnight White House stays and other special "programs" offered by the Democrats during the 1996 presidential campaign could make their voices heard inside government in a way that others could not.
An assortment of the several hundred donors who helped raise $180 million for the Democratic National Committee in the 1996 campaign had major issues at stake before administration agencies at the time. White House officials have insisted the administration never exchanged a specific policy action for a contribution.
Clinton, responding to a question about donors invited to White House events, said at a January news conference, "What they get from me, I think, is a respectful hearing if they have some concern about the issues."
'Direct Line to the White House'
However, records and interviews seem to indicate that Tsakopoulos received far more from the administration than a sympathetic ear.
Most notably, an Environmental Protection Agency official in Washington directed the staffers in the department's West Coast office not to press for major fines or criminal sanctions against the developer, according to interviews with three former and current EPA staffers.
One of the reasons for the deference, said one EPA staffer, was that "Mr. Tsakopoulos has a direct line to the White House."
Those connections translated into "special preference" for Tsakopoulos throughout the regulatory process, said Tom Coe, chief of the California permit section of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "He has clout, he has access. . . . We're aware of it."
Indeed, Tsakopoulos is a longtime Democratic fund-raiser--he donated $165,000 last year to the Democratic National Committee--who enjoys considerable access within the Clinton administration. In addition to meeting with the president at the coffee klatch, Tsakopoulos was invited to a White House state dinner for Greek president Costis Stephanopoulos on May 10 of last year and spent the night in the Lincoln Bedroom. In 1994, Clinton was the guest of honor at a fund-raiser at the developer's home.
Tsakopoulos said in an interview that, even though he frequently voices concerns to government officials about policies affecting the development industry, he draws the line at using his influence to benefit his own business endeavors.
"As a rule, I will not take advantage [when] I have the opportunity to speak to people that are decision-makers for personal gain," he said. "I will not do that."
Garamendi, Others Became Involved
Yet at the developer's request, former California Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi, who became a top Interior Department administrator in 1995, weighed in for Tsakopoulos with two other federal agencies on the development case. In addition, federal administrators wound up flying from Washington to Sacramento for a daylong meeting with Tsakopoulos about his regulatory woes. And in what one memo described as a "highly favorable" arrangement for Tsakopoulos, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service waived its own policy requiring landowners to restore wetlands they destroy.
"This is greenback regulation," said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington. "If you have the greenbacks, you don't get regulated. . . . I think this is extremely serious."
One White House official said the administration was not prepared to comment on the treatment Tsakopoulos received, but added: "We're looking into the matter."
Garamendi noted that Tsakopoulos did not get all that he wanted.
"He got nothing special that others didn't get" in other cases, said Garamendi, a longtime political ally of the developer.