WASHINGTON - Clinton administration staffers were told in an April 1996 memo, drafted by a high-ranking White House lawyer, that government crews would be recording presidential political events.
Despite the memo, the White House counsel's office - where the lawyer is now second in command - denied knowing until several weeks ago that President Clinton's meetings with Democratic donors were on videotape.
The admission came six months after the Senate subpoenaed the White House for videotapes and all other documents related to Clinton administration fund raising. Republicans contend the delay was intentional. The White House denies that.
"It's very sad, indeed ... that we had to be the ones to pound this information out of them," said Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate investigating committee. "They were doing everything they can to see that they didn't comply" with the subpoena.
But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., disputed that there was a plan to conceal the videotapes from the Senate. "There was a question of misguided information and perhaps incompetence. That is bad enough, but I don't think there was intentional concealment," he said.
The operations chief of the White House Communications Agency, the videotaping office, testified today that he never received from White House lawyers a specific committee request for information on a June 18, 1996, presidential coffee. Steven Smith said if that single committee request of April 9, 1997, had reached him, he would have been able to tell presidential aides that tapes of the coffees were available.
Smith has said the word "coffee" was never mentioned to him until late August.
The administration defended the author of the memo, Cheryl D. Mills, saying her purpose in writing it was to be certain the White House Communications Agency and other staffers did not use official resources for campaign events. Mills then was associate White House counsel and is now the deputy counsel, the No. 2 position.
White House special counsel Lanny Davis acknowledged that Mills had a general discussion with Smith before writing the memo, but said there was no specific talk about coffees or videotapes. She "did not know ... which events" were taped by the communications agency, Davis said.
The April 8, 1996, memo was just turned over this week to Senate investigators. It said the communications agency would provide "limited support for the president during political events on the road and at the White House."
It then listed seven functions for the agency at such events, including "recording presidential remarks for the archives."
Smith, the communications agency official, told Senate investigators on Oct. 10 that Mills came to him before the memo to discuss the agency's role in political events.
Smith agreed that he and Mills didn't specifically discuss coffees or videotapes, but recalled telling the counsel: "There's some stuff that we do ... if it's political or official, that we still have to do. Like, a good example would be the archiving of the presidency." The agency's "archiving" role means making audio and visual recordings of the president for the National Archives.
Smith told the investigators that the counsel's office was "trying to put together a policy-type document that would make sure everybody knew" the communications agency's role at political events.
The White House said the Senate subpoena, a year after the memo, did not trigger a response by Mills to check the audio-visual agency because she wasn't on the team responding to the document request.
Republicans contend the delay was intentional, because they claim the tapes show illegal fund raising on federal property - the White House - and an attempt by Clinton to evade campaign spending limits. The White House has said there were no solicitations at the events on White House grounds and accused the Republicans of intentionally misstating campaign finance law.
Davis, the White House special counsel, said Mills was attempting to provide the communications agency "with guidance as to how (communications agency) assets such as telephones, computers, and printers, etc. should be used on political trips."
She was trying "to make sure that both (the communications agency) and the White House staff complied with the law," Davis said.
Meanwhile, documents from former Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign show that top Republican National Committee officials solicited money from wealthy donors in the final weeks of the campaign and forwarded it to sympathetic outside groups to spend on "issue ads."
The documents, submitted to Thompson's committee last week, show the RNC passed on to the National Right to Life Committee and Americans for Tax Reform checks of $100,000 each from Ohio financier Carl Lindner, The Washington Post reported in today's editions.
Another $500,000 solicited by Republican Party Chairman Haley Barbour from tobacco giant Philip Morris was forwarded to the American Defense Institute, according to the documents.
By The Associated Press