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CAMPAIGN 2000

Cheney Evokes Scrutiny of Campaigning by Cabinet

Ethics: GOP running mate says top officials should stay above the political fray. Yet that conflicts with his own actions as Defense secretary.

October 31, 2000|ALAN C. MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Early in 1991, when Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was helping run the Persian Gulf War against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, he found time to attend a political reception for current and prospective donors to GOPAC, a committee run by Rep. Newt Gingrich whose goal was to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats.

These days, though, Cheney is the running mate of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. And now he is highly critical of political meddling by key members of President Clinton's Cabinet.

So when Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers took issue with Bush's Social Security proposal last week, Cheney blasted him for improperly venturing into the political maelstrom. Likewise, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright questioned Bush's troop withdrawal proposal for the Balkans, Bush himself cried foul.

During a down-to-the-wire presidential race in which both sides are seeking any edge, this controversy has raised a thorny question: Should Cabinet members in sensitive national positions engage in partisan political activity and, if so, under what circumstances?

Both parties point to a tradition in which the heads of the Defense, State, Justice and Treasury departments remain above the political fray. But exceptions have abounded over the years, particularly among appointees who come from the political realm.

Moreover, as campaign fund-raising has exploded in the last decade and partisanship in Washington has become more intense, Cabinet members have become an increasingly tempting resource to assist their party in any way they can.

But the risks of such behavior may be mounting as fast as the rewards since voters appear to be increasingly mindful of electoral ethics.

Cheney, as a Cabinet member nine years ago and a candidate now, has confronted these issues from both the inside and the outside.

His spokeswoman, Juleanna Glover Weiss, said there is a sharp distinction between Cabinet members who engage in "party-building activities" such as Cheney's appearance at Gingrich's political action committee event and those who "go out and play an attack-dog role" in a presidential campaign.

But Cheney and other members of President Bush's Cabinet also aided his 1992 reelection campaign against Bill Clinton. Cheney traveled the country during the campaign and occasionally took thinly veiled shots at the Democrat's proposal to cut defense spending. At the same time, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady openly attacked Clinton's economic program.

In addition, Cheney conducted briefings for major contributors at the Pentagon and elsewhere.

The GOPAC event was Jan. 29, 1991, 12 days after the beginning of the allied bombardment in Kuwait and Iraq. That evening, Cheney went to the Capitol to hear President Bush tell America, in his State of the Union address, that this was "a defining moment."

Afterward, Cheney stopped by the GOPAC reception in Gingrich's cramped whip office in the Capitol. It followed a dinner for members and new recruits.

"The secretary was already in the building," Weiss said, "and he just swung by."

Overall, she said, Cheney's political activities were "typical for Cabinet heads." And she said that any partisan events that Cheney attended involved "donors who had already given money. These were not events where money was solicited."

However, interviews and correspondence show that Cheney's GOPAC appearance, previously revealed only in internal documents released by the House Ethics Committee in 1997 after an investigation of Gingrich, also was used to cultivate future donors. In follow-up letters, Gingrich invoked Cheney's name as he urged three participants to become GOPAC charter members.

"Dick Cheney was able to join us in spite of the enormous demands on him due to the Persian Gulf crisis," Gingrich wrote to a prospective GOPAC donor a week after the event. "GOPAC tries to provide members and guests with very different opportunities to visit with Republican officials and attend events that other committees might not provide."

Six other Bush Cabinet members, including Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh, also attended the reception, Gingrich noted.

C. Boyden Gray, who as President Bush's White House counsel was the administration's ethics arbiter, defended Cheney's involvement with various partisan activities as appropriate. But he acknowledged he was troubled upon learning that Cheney had attended a political reception that was intended, at least in part, to enlist new paying members.

"It bothers me a little bit," Gray said. "I don't think I would have endorsed something like that."

A Republican familiar with GOPAC said the event was "the same sort of donor maintenance that everybody does. It's a far cry from being a real fund-raiser."

He said Cheney was predisposed to participate because of his friendship with Gingrich, a former House ally when Cheney represented Wyoming for 10 years. Gingrich, who is no longer affiliated with GOPAC, and GOPAC officials declined comment.

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