Why Fund-Raising Flap Pummels Democrats


When it comes to campaign-finance scandals and fiascoes, the Democratic National Committee and the White House seem to be drawing all the fire. Or at least that's how it appears to President Clinton.

"We need to be candid about this," the president recently told a gathering of Democratic Party leaders, with a bitter edge to his voice. "On the other side, our [Republican] friends may not think that they have any interest in campaign-finance reform. Why should they? They raise more money; they raise more foreign money; they raise more in big contributions, and we take all the heat."

Is the press giving the Republicans a free ride, as the president suggests?

The bottom line, campaign-finance experts say, is that apparent abuses by the Democrats have outpaced anything the Republicans have been accused of.

Democratic Party officials acknowledge that in their rush to keep pace with the Republican Party's fund-raising machine, safeguards long adopted by Democratic fund-raisers were ignored last year. Some experts say that rush set the stage for scandal.

"I think there was a full-court-press in 1996 to establish parity with the Republicans, and corners were cut and the Democrats were caught," says Ellen Miller, former director of the Center for Responsive Politics and now of head of a new watchdog group called Public Campaign.

Following Mr. Clinton's speech, the Republican National Committee issued a statement saying that the Republicans had not accepted any illegal foreign campaign contributions, as suggested by the president.

Some observers say that the White House is reaping the kind of intense scrutiny that only a president can attract.

"The president is the president. He has control over many more levers of power than the Senate majority leader or the Speaker [of the House of Representatives]," says Gary Ruskin of the Congressional Accountability Project. "There is more that the president can do in return [for large campaign contributions]," he says.

But Mr. Ruskin warns that the full extent of potential Republican campaign-finance abuses may not become apparent until donors seek legislative favors.

"Given the amount of money they have raised, doubtless there are plenty of other paybacks to be found on the Republican side as well," he says.

Federal Election Commission reports show the Republicans raised $216 million more than the Democrats during the recent election season. Overall, the Democrats raked in $332 million to the Republicans' $548 million, FEC records show.

The White House and the Democratic Party have been stung by revelations that a Chinese arms dealer and a drug trafficker gained access to the president at separate fund-raising events, and that certain major contributors were spending the night at the White House in the Lincoln bedroom.

AT the recent DNC meeting, the president outlined a series of modest reforms adopted by party leaders that include a voluntary ban on political contributions from non-US citizens, a ban on donations from the American subsidiaries of foreign corporations, and a $100,000 cap on so-called soft-money donations to the party from individuals, labor unions, and corporations.

The president also urged swift passage of finance reform legislation that would ban all soft money donations and establish voluntary campaign spending limits for candidates.

In large part, these measures were adopted to help head off any future embarrassments or infractions.

Ms. Miller says the Republicans weren't under as much pressure as Democrats to bend the rules because "they have always had a better grass-roots fund-raising operation." She adds, "They are just better at it, and they have more [corporate] money on their side."

During the presidential campaign the DNC returned $1.5 million in questionable donations, most of them solicited by Democratic fund-raiser John Huang. Mr. Huang's activities, including soliciting campaign contributions at a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles, are under investigation by the Justice Department and will be the subject of Senate hearings in March.

The only substantive allegations to emerge about fund-raising abuses by the Republicans involved Simon Fireman. Mr. Fireman, a former Dole campaign vice chairman, pleaded guilty in federal court in Boston to channeling $69,000 in donations to the Dole campaign through employees at his company.

Mr. Fireman was sentenced weeks before the November election. He received six months of house arrest and was ordered to pay a $1 million fine. His company was fined $5 million.

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