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Funds Gore Solicited Became 'Hard Money'

Politics: Transfer from 'soft-money' account may force probe. DNC says he wasn't aware of procedure.

September 03, 1997|BOB WOODWARD | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — More than $120,000 in campaign contributions personally solicited in 1995-96 by Vice President Al Gore for a "soft-money" account not covered by federal election regulations instead went into a "hard-money" account subject to federal limits.

The money came from at least eight of 46 donors the vice president telephoned from his White House office to ask for contributions to the Democratic National Committee, according to records released by Gore's office.

The distinction is significant because Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has cited the absence of evidence that high-level government officials sought hard-money donations as a key reason not to recommend appointment of an independent counsel to investigate fund-raising activities for last year's elections.

Soft money is defined as contributions not intended to support individual candidates but to promote "party-building" and other general campaign activities such as television advertising, and is largely unregulated.

Hard-money contributions are highly valued by campaigns because they can be used directly to benefit individual candidates. But federal law specifically restricts the solicitation, amount and use of such contributions.

Among the restrictions, the law says such regulated contributions cannot be solicited on federal property.

Thus, Reno has maintained that because she has seen no evidence that regulated contributions were solicited from the White House--or, in the words she used in an April 14 letter, any White House area "occupied in the discharge of official duties"--no independent counsel is warranted.

A senior White House official said Tuesday that Gore did not ask for any hard-money contributions and was unaware that money he solicited was directed into the DNC hard-money account.

DNC spokeswoman Amy Weiss Tobe said Tuesday night that "the vice president was not aware that money was being designated for the federal [hard-money] account." She said that it was "routine procedure" to assign the first $20,000 of a large donation--the legal limit for a hard-money contribution--to that account and to deposit the rest into the soft-money account, and suggested that is what had inadvertently happened with the contributions solicited by Gore.

Officials said Tuesday night this practice may bring scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission because it does not necessarily reflect the wishes of the donors, who are supposed to designate the use of the money.

Records made available by Gore's office show that his telephone solicitations resulted in at least $105,000 being deposited into the DNC's hard-money account within days or months after he solicited the donors.

The practice poses a more immediate question for Reno, however, who has been sharply criticized by senior Republicans for declining to ask for appointment of an independent counsel.

Burt Brandenburg, the Justice Department's chief spokesman, said Tuesday night that Reno had no comment on the matter.

Reno has previously said prosecutors assigned to a Justice Department task force examining fund-raising activities in last year's elections would look at any new allegations presented to them.

The controversy about Gore's telephone solicitations arose earlier this year when he was questioned about calls he made from the White House seeking contributions for last year's reelection effort. Although Gore originally acknowledged making a few calls from the White House for soft-money contributions, the White House last week acknowledged that he made 86 calls and reached 46 potential donors.

It is not clear how the DNC decided to allocate the money raised by Gore.

Throughout the solicitation controversy, even while defending themselves against specific allegations, White House officials have said that laws relating to the use of government properties and telephones do not apply to the president and vice president.

Records compiled by Gore's attorneys show that Gore was seeking soft-money contributions because he was calling potential donors for contributions of at least $25,000, which is $5,000 more than the $20,000 hard-money maximum allowed under federal election law.

At the time, the party was almost desperate for hard money because it could be pumped directly into the Clinton-Gore campaign and used for advertising and other campaign-specific activities.

It is more difficult to raise large amounts of hard money because of the legal limit. In addition to the $20,000 cap, corporations and labor unions are barred from giving hard money, which must come from individuals.

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