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Big Donors Break Bread, Not Rules, With Clinton

September 22, 1997|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Even a Republican screenwriter would have a hard time improving on this script.

Eighteen wealthy entrepreneurs pony up $600,000 for a private dinner with the president. Their objective is not just to share a toast with the chief executive but to influence government policy. They want the White House to overrule the FBI director on an issue that directly affects their industry's future profits.

It sounds like the kind of thing that GOP investigators have been trying for months to uncover as part of their ongoing probe of Democratic campaign finance irregularities.

But this is no work of fiction. It happened over the weekend. No one suggests anything illegal took place. In fact, the participants don't think they did anything wrong at all.

"I didn't even think about that," said Kim Polese, founder of Marima Inc., a Palo Alto software firm, and one of the participants in the Saturday night fund-raising event attended by President Clinton.

But wouldn't an average voter conclude there is something untoward about a group of Silicon Valley CEOs taking advantage of such intimate access to lobby for a change in administration policy on computer "encryption" technology?

"I absolutely do not agree with that at all," Polese said in an interview Sunday.

In fact, when some of the hottest names in high-tech agreed to attend the party at the elegant San Francisco home of a young industry entrepreneur, everyone concerned--including the White House--knew that encryption would be the evening's key topic of conversation.

A leisurely meal appeared to be the perfect opportunity to try to persuade the president to block a new plan by FBI director Louis J. Freeh to impose sweeping controls on domestic sales of software for encoding electronic commerce and communication.

Under Freeh's proposal, versions of which are moving through both houses of Congress, software sold in the United States with encryption features to ensure a user's privacy would have to be written in a way that would allow the government to decode information if needed for a criminal case.

Organizers of Saturday night's event made no secret of the fact that, although the CEOs were likely to raise many issues with Clinton, encryption was at the top of the list, because they fear Freeh's proposal could do serious damage to their industry and their companies.

Wade Randlett, political director of Technology Network, a new bipartisan political organization in Silicon Valley, and organizer of the fund-raising event, said encryption is a hot topic "because it's in play" in Washington.

Randlett, who has been involved in Democratic politics for more than a decade, said it would be ridiculous to ask people to make five-figure and, in a few cases, six-figure donations unless they were given a chance to argue their positions with the guest of honor.

"I really do think it's been blown out of proportion," Polese, a member of the team that developed the JAVA software language that is widely used on the Internet because it works with all computer operating systems, said of the campaign finance controversy. "Personally, I find all the hoopla around campaign finance a little boring."

Saturday's dinner shows that the ability of generous donors to buy face time with powerful politicians has not been extinguished by the campaign fund-raising controversy. In fact, it reinforces the perception that the investigations in Washington are focusing on what seem like legal technicalities rather than on the fundamental practices that many Americans find objectionable.

*

Like some of the activities that have drawn the attention of investigators, Saturday night's dinner was a clear case of wealthy donors paying for political access. The difference is that the affair took place in a private home, not in the White House or a Buddhist temple. And the participants are respected U.S. executives, not foreign citizens or suspicious characters.

Randlett predicted that, unless the nation's campaign finance laws are reformed, fund-raising events like Saturday night's dinner will become even more commonplace, because they are an efficient way to raise large sums of money. Truly wealthy donors are unlikely to attend events where they eat "frozen salmon steaks" and listen to the president give a stock speech.

The dinner was held at the home of Halsey Minor, the 32-year-old chief operating officer of C/NET Inc., a San Francisco company that produces TV programs and Internet sites.

Participants included some of the most prominent figures in Silicon Valley: venture capitalist John Doerr, Apple founder Steve Jobs and Netscape inventor Marc Andreessen.

About 30 people attended the event, according to Randlett, including 18 check writers and their guests. The participants sat on sofas and chairs as the president gave a brief speech. Then they moved to Minor's formal dining room, where they sat at three round tables, sipped gazpacho and dined on steak and potatoes.

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