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Gore Phoned Donors Without Checking Law

Fund-raising: Vice president's staff says he assumed Democratic Party had determined that unusual calls from White House would be legal.

September 13, 1997|DAVID WILLMAN and ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Vice President Al Gore took the unusual step of soliciting scores of major campaign contributors from the White House without inquiring whether the calls would comply with federal law, Gore's staff has acknowledged.

Gore's spokeswoman, Lorraine Voles, said that Gore placed the calls to the donors in 1995 and 1996 without checking the legality of the action with White House lawyers or his aides. She said that Gore assumed the Democratic National Committee, which asked him to make the calls, had determined the propriety of doing so.

Interviews with Gore associates indicate that the calls--more than 70 of them--marked a distinct departure from his previous caution on campaign solicitations. During the 16 years he served in the House and the Senate, Gore made calls from a nearby Capitol Hill apartment owned by his parents to avoid soliciting from his government offices.

Some longtime Gore supporters expressed amazement at the risky White House calls, disclosure of which has prompted Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to begin a 30-day assessment of whether an independent counsel should be named.

Among veteran politicians, "Gore's a pretty cautious guy," said a senior advisor to President Clinton who was an architect of the 1996 fund-raising strategy. "I attribute it to bad staff advice. . . . I can't imagine him running a risk on that."

The intense dispute over the legality of the calls now figures to have an impact on the fate of the broader political fund-raising scandal as well as on Gore's presidential prospects in 2000.

The vice president and his supporters insist that the calls to donors were legal. Others contend that they violated a provision of federal law which prohibits fund-raising in government offices.

Should an independent counsel be named, the investigation could take on a life of its own because of the broad mandate such counsels are given and the manner in which their inquiries tend to expand. An independent prosecutor could end up spending years exploring various allegations involving Gore, President Clinton or others inside the administration and elsewhere.

As the presumptive front-runner for his party's presidential nomination in 2000, Gore, 49, could ill afford such a prospect.

For now, Gore is seeking to say as little publicly as possible about the controversy, directing aides and other surrogates to make his case as Senate hearings focus on his conduct. Without question, Gore is facing a major career test.

A senior administration advisor, who spoke on a condition of anonymity, said Clinton and Gore were well aware that it was essential to raise money from major donors to pay for a preemptive TV advertising campaign in 1995 and early 1996. The ads, which cost the Democratic National Committee nearly $42 million, portrayed Republicans as reckless threats to Medicare; analysts credit the commercials with helping to reverse the Democrats' decline and with preparing the ground for Clinton's reelection.

"He did an enormous amount of fund-raising," the advisor said of Gore. "He was a good soldier. And I never saw reluctance on his part. In terms of where they made the calls from . . . I think we all had a working assumption that it was the better part of discretion for even the vice president not to make phone calls from the White House."

But according to Voles, Gore's communications director, Gore went ahead with the calls without seeking legal advice about the location.

She said, "The DNC never advised the vice president not to make those calls from his office."

Clearly, Gore is no newcomer to the sensitivity of soliciting campaign money from a government office.

Voles confirmed that Gore did not make fund-raising solicitations from his congressional offices. Even when Gore did phone some potential donors from his Senate office in 1988 seeking help in retiring his campaign debt, Voles said, "those calls were not direct solicitations for money.'

As for Gore's phone solicitations from the White House, the vice president and his aides now say that the calls were nevertheless legal on two grounds: first, that the law was only intended to prevent government employees from shaking down subordinates at work and, second, that Gore was seeking to raise only "soft" money for Democratic Party use. Soft money is largely unregulated, while "hard" money that pays campaign expenses is strictly regulated.

That latter contention has been attacked by Republican critics, who note that some of the money raised by Gore was later used for "hard" purposes. Moreover, White House memos distributed to Gore, Clinton and their top aides stressed the importance of raising hard money--including from major donors.

Whether Gore knowingly raised hard money as well as soft money is part of what Reno is assessing in deciding whether to seek appointment of an independent counsel.

There is considerable disagreement over the nature of the money Gore raised through more than 75 phone calls.

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