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Outcry Doesn't Halt GOP's $11.3-Million Fund-Raiser

Politics: Controversy, investigations fail to slow either party's drive for cash, insiders say. But protesters show up to make displeasure known.

May 14, 1997|MARC LACEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The uproar over campaign fund-raising abuses has generated two congressional investigations, a Justice Department inquiry and many embarrassing headlines. But it has not curbed politicians' mad dash for cash, as was abundantly clear Tuesday night at the Washington Hilton.

The hotel was the site of a formal gala hosted by the Republican National Committee, which staged its largest fund-raising event of the year despite having been dragged into the brouhaha over questionable contributions just last week.

The formal gathering drew Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia and thousands of the party's most generous givers. Those who pitched in to raise $250,000 or more for the event were invited to share lunch earlier in the day with GOP congressional leaders, pose for photos with Lott and Gingrich, attend a private reception with Republican governors and sit at the dais during the evening banquet with other dignitaries. Those responsible for $100,000 in contributions to the occasion earned the same benefits, except for the seat at the dais.

The estimated haul from the festivities: $11.3 million, making it one of the largest fund-raisers of all time.

Joining the big-money donors at the event, however, was a crowd of protesters, an expression of the renewed interest in political money-raising practices that for years have been taken for granted.

The demonstrators, who included one dressed as a "fat cat" with bags of paper money in his claw, condemned the GOP event as another example of Washington money-raising gone wild. As the elegantly dressed guests arrived, picketers jeered at them with chants, such as, "Show us the money; what are you buying?"

One of those bellowed at by the protesters is on their side--Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is leading the uphill effort in the Senate for campaign finance reform at the same time that he is helping his party boost its accounts.

The GOP gala was just one of a flurry of springtime fund-raisers of both parties in the nation's capital. The 1998 elections may loom on the distant horizon for most, but there are debts to retire, war chests to build and allegiances to solidify.

Although the ever-expanding fund-raising flap has trained a spotlight on the process, insiders said that the money continues to flow--even if the atmosphere is a bit more uncomfortable.

President Clinton has continued to headline Democratic fund-raisers since the donation controversy erupted last fall. Indeed, in March, hours after he had called for campaign finance reform at the White House, President Clinton attended two Democratic fund-raisers that would not have been legal under the reform measures he supports.

"It's not hypocritical to say that we have to change the campaign finance system we have and continue to raise money in the system that exists," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said at the time.

Republican officials insisted that they are being far less hypocritical than Clinton.

"There is a clear understanding on the part of our donors that the scandal that has enveloped the Democratic Party stems from the system itself being abused, not flaws in the system," said GOP spokeswoman Mary Mead Crawford.

Disagreeing was Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, one of the political watchdog groups that organized the protests at the GOP fund-raiser. Referring to a fund-raising technique that sparked criticism of the Democrats, Claybrook said: "There's no difference between buying $10,000 cups of coffee at the White House and buying a day of rubbing shoulders with congressional VIPs for $15,000 and up at a ritzy hotel."

One reason for the continuing spree of money-raising is that both parties are still recovering from the costs of the 1996 campaign.

The Republican National Committee owes $6 million, according to its March financial statement, and the party's balance sheet worsened a bit last week when it was forced to return more than $100,000 in illegal foreign contributions.

The Democratic National Committee is on even shakier financial footing, with debts of $14.4 million and about $1.5 million in tainted donations that it intends to send back to contributors. It already has returned about $1.5 million in contributions because of questions about the sources of the money.

So fund-raising goes on, controversy or no controversy.

Just look at Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.), who will take a break from his role as chairman of the House campaign fund-raising inquiry tonight to host his annual "Indy 500 Warm-Up Reception" at the offices of the American Trucking Assn.

"There's fund-raisers that are going on every day in this town," Burton said through a spokesman. "As long as it's within the limits of the law, there's not a problem."

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