Washington Bulletin

Washington Bulletin

The Thompson committee continued its assault on the justifications for not appointing an independent counsel in the fundraising scandal yesterday. The first big blow had been delivered last week in a Bob Woodward piece—apparently reliant to some degree or other on committee sources—reporting that some of the take from Gore's phone solicitations went to Democratic "hard money" accounts. Hard money are contributions that can be used directly for the election of federal candidates; a donor can only give $25,000 of it a year. Soft money on the other hand can only be used for generic party-building efforts and there are no regulations on how much someone can give. The distinction is so relevant in the Gore case because Reno has argued that the federal statute barring solicitation of campaign contributions didn't apply to Gore because he was raising soft money that is not technically a campaign contribution. Republicans dispute this interpretation, but in any case the Woodward revelation made it irrelevant.

Now focus has shifted to Gore's intent. Generally in such cases, a person's state of mind is crucial in deciding whether or not to prosecute: was the person deliberately and knowingly violating the law? Gore defenders say that he wasn't because he thought he was raising soft money. But the Thompson committee put that argument in serious doubt yesterday, by producing a series of memos that were floating around the White House explaining how the first $20,000 of a contribution was a "hard money" contribution. It's not entirely clear whether the memos were just attempts to describe federal law (as Democrats argued) or descriptions of DNC policy (as Republicans suggested), but it is clear they describe at least occasional DNC practice. As the New York Times reported yesterday, the DNC seems to have in at least some cases skimmed the first $20,000 off contributions to devote the money to the highly-valued hard-money accounts.

The trail of memos includes ones produced as early as July 12, 1994 [click here] explaining the "Sources of Federal (Hard) Money" as "the first $20,000 received from an individual, ($40,000 for a couple)." The author of that memo, DNC chief financial officer, Bradley Marshall wrote another memo on February 21, 1996 reiterating the point. This memo to Harold Ickes describing the sources of hard and soft money and the ratio of both needed to continue the Democrats' campaign of media buys is of crucial significance because in a memo the next day Ickes passed it along to the President and Vice President. [click here] The copy of the memo distributed by the committee yesterday is stamped "THE PRESIDENT HAS SEEN" and has a left-handed check-mark on top, apparently from the President himself. There is no direct evidence that Gore saw the memo, but the testimony of Gore's executive assistant suggests that he would routinely see Ickes's memos [click here].

The Democrats pointed out that the bottom line of the Ickes memo was that "until the amounts of non federal individual [money] is replenished, the DNC cannot buy media time," i.e., the Democrats needed soft money fast. But, be that as it may, hard money has its value too, and there seems ample evidence to suggest that Gore should have known some of the money raised by him would be going to hard-money accounts. There are still major arguments about the interpretation of the federal statute Gore was allegedly violating (for fundraising junkies, we will be providing a detailed analysis of Section 607 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code sometime soon). But it is clear that, one way or the other, Gore demeaned the office of the Vice Vresident. And it's also clear that the legalistic justifications Janet Reno has invoked to avoid appointing an independent counsel are crumbling away one by one. Fred Thompson may never find a "smoking gun" himself, but it seems more likely by the day that an independent counsel will eventually continue the search.

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Updated By:
Rich Lowry - National Political Reporter
Ramesh Ponnuru - National Reporter

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