Clinton Teeters On Legal Edge Of Finance Law

It's one of the main defenses White House officials use when reporters ask them about President Clinton's political fundraising activities: "We're no different than those other guys."

On Tuesday, White House spokesman Michael McCurry even cited academic research to the effect that organizations in conflict become like one another.

"A large part of what we did was similar to ... efforts that were under way at the Republican Party," he said.

But a steady stream of revelations about Mr. Clinton and the courting of campaign cash may make it more difficult for the administration to make this comparison. If nothing else, the image of Clinton's actions that is emerging is one of a savvy incumbent who used the full extent of incentives at his disposal in an all-out attempt to fill his party's coffers.

Documents released so far don't necessarily indicate any laws were broken, say campaign experts. But when Clinton hosted coffees in the White House, he could in effect see the edge of the law from where he was standing.

"It doesn't look good. It is politically damaging, and it violates the spirit of the law that the [presidency] shouldn't be used to raise money," claims Lisa Rosenberg, an attorney with the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group.

The most recent White House fund-raising data to be made public is contained in hundreds of pages of documents compiled by former Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes. Per consultation with the White House, Mr. Ickes has turned these papers over to a congressional panel investigating allegations of finance irregularities. In turn, Clinton officials decided to make the whole cache public themselves rather than see its most damaging bits of information selectively leaked by congressional political opponents.

The Ickes papers appear significant in at least two respects: They portray a president who was himself intimately involved in fund-raising details for his party, and they make a series of White House coffees held prior to last year's elections appear perilously close to political fund-raisers.

In the past, Clinton and his advisers have made an effort to portray the chief executive as being somewhat disengaged from the messy reality of raising money. In particular, they've been quick to point out that many of the allegations regarding Democratic fund-raising activities - such as the possible funneling of foreign money into domestic campaigns - involve the practices of the Democratic National Committee, not those of Clinton himself.

But revelations about Clinton's heavy involvement in the planning of DNC fund-raising, including his hand-written scribbles asking for lists of big contributors and his eagerness to begin hosting political donors in the Lincoln bedroom "right away," make it clear that in many respects the White House and the DNC are one and the same.

"The line between national party committees and the White House has always been an invisible Chinese wall," says Henry Graff, a presidential historian at Columbia University in New York. "It is a curious notion that you can separate the actions of the president as president from the actions of the president as politician."

Furthermore, new details about the much-discussed White House coffees for friends and donors emphasize the political nature of the meetings. The coffees and White House overnights were perks that might "energize" generous givers, wrote Terence McAuliffe, Clinton's chief fund-raiser, in 1995.

It is illegal to use a federal building to raise political funds. (The Democratic and Republican parties, for instance, maintain phone banks in their Capitol Hill headquarters so lawmakers can dash over in their spare time and make fund-raising calls legally.) The distinction in the case of the White House coffees is that no admission was charged, literally speaking. Not everyone who sipped java with Clinton ended up writing the Democrats a check.

That apparently makes them legal - perhaps by the thinnest of ethical margins. They weren't fund-raisers but were "part of the effort to build financial support for the party," said White House spokesman McCurry.

Every modern president has his office trappings in some manner to woo political donors, experts say. That likely includes George Bush, Clinton's Republican predecessor. GOP clubs for donors, for instance, have long implicitly promised access to top officials in return for big bucks.

But the scale of Clinton's activities, particularly his personal involvement, appears unprecedented - at least so far. The president's famous appetite for detail extended to slipping early-morning memos under guests' bedroom doors regarding policy discussions of the night before.

Fund-raising allegations have yet to affect Clinton's public-approval ratings, however. Many voters might agree with Columbia's Mr. Graff: Today's ethics swirl is a "surrogate to doing anything about the deep-seated problems" facing the country.

* Staff writers Kurt Shillinger in Boston and Warren Richey in Washington contributed to this report.

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