WASHINGTON — A sign in the lobby of Democratic Party headquarters announces in bright red letters that only four days remain until the election.
But with questions multiplying about suspicious fund-raising tactics, these last few days may seem like months to exhausted party workers who hope the current storm over campaign finance does not grow into a political hurricane before next Tuesday.
For now, analysts say the president has been skillful in distancing himself from the growing scandal. But it is still too early to determine whether the fund-raising foul-ups, so far involving just the Democratic National Committee (DNC), were entirely the work of overzealous fund-raisers at the DNC. News accounts are raising questions about White House involvement.
The controversy escalated this week with fresh allegations that an ex-White House aide discussed a potential $15-million contribution to the Clinton campaign with a leader of a Taiwan political party. Such a contribution from a foreign party would be a violation of US election laws.
Also this week, the Democratic National Committee, in a major miscalculation, refused to release a required election-finance report listing campaign contributors during the first two weeks of October.
It remains unclear why they balked at making the information public. But after unintentionally ratcheting the suspicion level up several notches in the nation's capital, party leaders abruptly reversed the decision and ordered a preliminary version of the donors list released to the media.
Some campaign experts say Democratic Party workers may have been reluctant to release the document because party officials are themselves uncertain whether the listed contributions will stand up to the test of public scrutiny. "They are not sure what is out there, and they'd just as soon not find out until after November 6. Then they can deal with it," says Candice Nelson, director of the Campaign Management Institute at American University in Washington.
President Clinton has kept a low profile on the campaign-finance issue. That is likely to change today, aides say, when he is expected to announce a plan for cleaning up the problem of money and politics. How the issue plays out will likely depend on who controls Congress next year. A Republican Congress will press for investigations and answers, a Democratic Congress is unlikely to vigorously question the activities of its own party, analysts say.
Administration officials concede that Mr. Clinton met with the same Taiwan party official roughly one month after the alleged offer of the $15-million donation. But they say the two men merely shook hands at a fund-raiser in San Francisco in September 1995. There is no indication in public documents that the Taiwan official, Liu Tai-ying, ever made a contribution.
Mr. Liu denies that any solicitation took place. A Taiwan businessman, Chen Chao-ping, has been quoted in Taiwan newspapers as saying he was present during the meeting between Liu and Mark Middleton, a former White House aide who now runs a consulting business in Washington. Mr. Chen says Liu offered $15 million. Mr. Middleton could not be reached for comment.
The Democratic Party has been dogged for a month by persistent questions about fund-raising. Most questions focus on the efforts of John Huang, a DNC vice chairman of finance who worked for the late Ron Brown at the Commerce Department.
Mr. Huang is one of the party's most successful money men, drawing $4 to $5 million from the Asian American community. But following media accounts of a fund-raiser in a Buddhist temple in California, attended by Vice President Al Gore, and suspicious contributions from foreign residents in the US and foreign firms, the Federal Election Commission has launched an investigation. GOP members of Congress are calling for a special prosecutor.
Huang has not spoken publicly about his fund-raising. But he made his first public appearance here this week after he was ordered by a federal judge to answer questions by a legal advocacy group about his 16-month tenure at the Commerce Department. The group, Judicial Watch Inc., has sued the department for access to documents it believes will show that under Commerce Secretary Brown the agency was used to help generate campaign dollars for the Democratic Party. Prior to becoming secretary of Commerce, Mr. Brown was chairman of the DNC.
The group charges that Brown and others at Commerce rewarded businessmen who contributed $100,000 or more to the Democrats by inviting them on potentially lucrative overseas trade missions. Huang worked at Commerce during this period. He left the department early this year to begin raising money for the DNC. "This was a three-year strategy by the former chairman" of the DNC to benefit his party with the resources available at Commerce, says Patrick Wilson of Judicial Watch.
In an announcement distributed on DNC letterhead, the party unveiled a program in which "managing trustees" of the DNC would be "invited to participate in foreign trade missions." The letter included the note: "Managing trustee membership requires a contribution of $100,000 annually."