WASHINGTON - With hugs, handshakes and backslaps, President Clinton got up close and personal with controversial Democratic donors, thanked contributors for supporting his campaign and subtly let them know that they had to keep the cash coming in, videotapes of fund-raising events show.
"Many of you have been very generous, I thank you for it," Clinton told donors at a May 21, 1996, dinner at the White House. But, he quickly adds, "This thing could get away from us in a hurry."
Federal law prohibits soliciting donors in government offices.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said the tapes show Clinton's re-election effort violated an election law ban on using "soft-money" donations to finance ads that directly benefited the president's campaign.
On one tape, Clinton tells donors that a Democratic Party TV ad campaign financed by "soft-money" donations was "central to the position I now enjoy in the polls." Specter said Clinton's comment "locks up the contention" by Republicans that the ads were intended to help the president's re-election and were illegally financed by party money.
"The law is plain that there cannot be coordination" between the candidate and the party, Specter said. "The quote of the president on the tape really nails it."
On another tape, Clinton is shown telling donors at a March 1996 Michigan fund-raiser that "a lot of this money being raised today will go .... to our media effort but also goes to our coordinated campaign."
More than 100 hours of long-sought tapes of dinners at swanky hotels, White House breakfasts and Saturday radio addresses in the Oval Office were turned over by the White House to Republican investigators Tuesday and Wednesday.
In several shown to reporters in a makeshift screening room at the Old Executive Office Building, Clinton appears alongside Charlie Trie, John Huang, James Riady, Johnny Chung and other Democratic fund-raisers whose activities in the 1996 election thrust their party into controversy.
Trie has left the country, Huang has cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in refusing to be interviewed by investigators and Chung won't cooperate in the probe without a grant of immunity. But the tapes showed that when Clinton was drumming up financial support for his campaign, the three were welcome in the president's fund-raising circle and acknowledged for their loyalty.
In one clip among the 158 events detailed on the tapes, Clinton is shown hailing Huang as "my good friend." In another, he reminisces with donors about his two-decade friendship with Trie, an Arkansas restaurateur who became a Washington fund-raiser.
"Soon it will be 20 years since I had my first meal with Charlie Trie," Clinton said in a hotel room full of donors on May, 19, 1996. "At the time, neither one of us could afford the ticket to this dinner."
Months later the Democratic Party would be forced to return $3 million in donations - most of it raised by Huang or Trie - because of concerns the money came from foreign or other improper sources.
Chung got a hug from the president when he visited the White House in March 1995 with six Chinese officials in tow to see Clinton's weekly radio address. Chung has said that meeting occurred after he handed a $50,000 check to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's then-chief of staff in the White House.
And the tapes show James Riady, a wealthy businessman from Indonesia whose family has made big contributions to the Democrats, chatting with Clinton in the White House after a radio address in September 1994. The cameraman stopped recording at that point, however, and their conversation wasn't caught on tape.
The tapes viewed by reporters did not show Clinton making explicit appeals for money at events inside or outside the White House. Senate investigators had been hoping that the tapes would reveal whether Clinton did just that.
White House special counsel Lanny Davis, who moderated the presentation to reporters, said, "These events, including those at the White House, confirm what we have always said, that these events were legal and proper."
In all, the White House released 66 video tapes and 121 audio tapes, mostly of the same events caught on camera.
The tapes also were turned over to the Justice Department where Attorney General Janet Reno said today they are "part of an overall investigation, an investigation that includes those tapes and much, much more."
"If any of the tapes become a part of the decision process, I would review them" personally, Reno told her weekly news conference.
The tapes were being viewed as Reno was grilled at a House hearing Wednesday for her handling of the fund-raising probe.
In a sometimes combative session Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee, she revealed that decisions on closing off areas of investigation would be made both by her and FBI Director Louis Freeh, an unprecedented sharing of her authority.
Thursday, Reno explained that she and Freeh would both have to approve any decision about "investigative strategy" but that she alone was responsible for legal decisions and "decisions to invoke the Independent Counsel Act or not."
Republicans said she was caught in a conflict of interest and were adamant that she had no choice but to seek an independent counsel to investigate White House fund-raising activities.
The tapes involved 158 events, 27 of which were at the White House. One unidentified White House dinner guest asked the president's support for an oil pipeline project in the Black Sea. Clinton did not respond.
Many in attendance at the events on the tapes were "soft money" donors whose contributions to the party can be unlimited in size but cannot be used directly to assist a federal candidate such as Clinton.
By The Associated Press