Reagan tapes add to questions

WASHINGTON - The scenes unfold in familiar fashion: A president welcomes contributors to the White House, mixes and mingles, thanks them for their support, exhorts them to continue their efforts and poses for the occasional souvenir snapshot.

These are the Ronald Reagan videotapes, part of the Reagan Presidential Library collection, conveniently provided to reporters by Democrats.

Most of the Reagan events on the Democrats' "greatest hits" tape take place in the East Room, an ornate ceremonial room on the first floor of the White House often used for concerts, announcements and presidential press conferences. The contributor groups include the Republican Eagles (who each gave $10,000 a year) and donors to the President's Dinner, the President's Trust and the Republican Congressional Leadership Council.

In the eyes of a Republican authority on campaign finance law, they are as provocative as the White House coffees and other events hosted by President Clinton.

"The questions raised by the Clinton and Reagan events have to be answered by somebody who's in a position to review this," says lawyer Jan Baran, a former general counsel to the Republican National Committee and the 1988 Bush campaign.

Among those questions: Where were the events held, in official White House space or a room that could be considered residential? What phrases did the president use, and could they be construed as direct solicitation? Who ultimately benefited from the money: federal candidates, local candidates or parties?

Beyond matters of taste or propriety, these are the technicalities that could determine whether a chief executive is breaking the Pendleton Act, an 1883 law that bans soliciting or receiving political contributions on federal property.

The law was revised in 1979 but remains murky on whether the ban covers the president and vice president; whether it covers phone solicitations; and which parts of the White House, if any, are exempt from the ban.

Like most in his party, Baran favors an independent counsel to review Clinton's fund-raising.

"If these Reagan events had been made public back in the mid-80s when the Democratic Party controlled Congress," Baran says, "I believe they would have been strenuously calling for an independent counsel rather than Attorney General Ed Meese to review these issues."

In the videos, Reagan is often accompanied by his wife, Nancy, at the events. His vice president, George Bush, also appears at several.

Democrats say there were at least 27 similar "donor-service" events at the White House during Bush's four-year presidency. Tapes from that period will not be available for public viewing until 1998, five years after Bush left office.

Democrats on the Senate committee investigating fund-raising abuses tried this month to obtain audio and videotapes of presidential fund-raising from 1981 to 1993, the Reagan-Bush years. But they were quickly rebuffed by Republicans.

Alan Baron, the Democratic counsel to the committee, requested the GOP fund-raising tapes Friday in a letter to Lt. Col. John Sparks at the National Security Council. Baron also sent a copy to Michael Madigan, the Republican counsel to the committee. That same day Madigan wrote Sparks telling him that Baron's request "is totally unauthorized and should be ignored."

Bush said in March that he had never solicited money at the White House. "I never made one single phone call or sat in any single meeting where money was asked for - ever - in the White House," he told USA TODAY.

The Reagan tapes show a smiling president pitching for political help at a time Republicans held the White House and the Senate and were trying to gain ground in the House.

"I hope I can count on all of you next time around," he told the congressional leadership group in April 1985. "Redouble your efforts," he urged the Eagles in September 1995. In April 1987, at the President's Dinner, he said, "I'm told that this function has raised an enormous sum."

Was he soliciting? And was he talking in personal or official space?

The only relevant guidance, according to Baran, is a 1979 Justice Department analysis prompted by a dinner President Carter held for Democratic contributors. The department determined that Carter had not solicited money and that the dinner was held in a dining room used for both personal and official functions.

The opinion "suggests that certain parts of the White House are clearly residential in character all the time, such as the second-floor residence, but that other parts of the White House may also be residential in character depending on their use," said Baran.

The opinion did not mention the East Room, which is adjacent to the dining room used by Carter in 1979. In at least one and possibly more of the Reagan tapes, the then-president is standing behind a lectern adorned with the presidential seal. An official flag stands nearby. In one appearance, Reagan talks about "living up above the store."

By Jill Lawrence, USA TODAY