Dirty Dollars II, III, IV

The campaign finance controversy is proving to be a feature-length Washington drama with no end of sequels. In one key episode this week, the McCain-Feingold reform bill got pulled from the Senate floor by majority leader Trent Lott, whose "poison pill" amending strategy proved somewhat less than potent. But the reform bill should resurface, and it will be even more potent next time around, given the growing atmosphere of scandal.

Deepening that atmosphere are the instant-hit White House videotapes. So far, nothing on these official home movies of President Clinton greeting campaign donors adds a lot to what's already known about those activities. There's Democratic fund-raiser John Huang getting a "Hi, John" from Mr. Clinton. There's party chairman Donald Fowler telling an overeager contributor he can't take checks now. And, most dramatically, the Indonesian "gardner," Arief Wiriadinata, telling the president that "James Riady sent me."

But pictures are powerful, and these pictures do three things: (1) They provide hard evidence of the questionable relationships and the lust for campaign dollars we've already learned about. (2) They graphically portray the time spent sponging such money by a president who should have been occupied with more important matters. (3) They bolster charges that the administration has not been forthcoming with evidence related to questionable fund-raising practices.

Congressional investigators have been asking for such tapes for months, only to be told they didn't exist. Attorney General Janet Reno was not informed of their existence until after she informed Congress, last week, that she had found nothing in the president's behavior that suggested wrongdoing. She did, however, extend the investigation of Vice President Gore's White House fund-raising. A final decision on going forward with the president's case is due Oct. 15.

The videos may not change her findings. But they renew charges that Reno's investigators have been less than stellar in ferreting out evidence. (They've regularly been outdistanced by the press.) Isn't it time to put the probe into the hands of someone whose methodical uncovering of the truth can't be impugned as politically motivated?

It's by no means clear that any covering up of illegality is going on. But the videotapes story must make the public wonder, at least, how a staff that so nimbly handled the details of last year's frantic campaign could suddenly be all thumbs when it comes to reconstructing what went on.

An independent counsel would be best suited to get to the bottom of this matter, as well as others regarding White House fund-raising, the solicitation of foreign donors, and possible quid pro quos for campaign contributions.

The administration may be hoping that lax public interest in the issue, the fuzziness of some campaign finance law, plus the "everyone does it" defense - reiterated by former top Clinton aide Harold Ickes in testimony this week - will see them through without a full, objective investigation. In fact, such an investigation is the only way out of this controversy. It would serve both the administration's interest - if, as asserted, no wrongdoing has occurred - and the public's.

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