09/19/97 - 02:22 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Witness says he was asked to shred evidence

WASHINGTON - A Florida businessman told Senate investigators Friday that on the eve of last year's election, then White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes urgently sought $1.5 million in contributions, then later asked him to destroy evidence of the solicitation.

"There was no way I was going to shred a document at the request of a White House official," R. Warren Meddoff testified as Senate fund-raising hearings delved into allegations that the White House was involved in trying to arrange $55 million to tax-exempt groups in an effort to help Clinton.

Meddoff's allegations included one that Ickes' solicititation came from aboard Air Force One. Federal law prohibits fund-raising solicitations on government property.

Under questioning from Democrats, however, Meddoff acknowledged he was a Republican and also had offered $5 million last year to then-GOP presidential candidate Robert Dole.

Meddoff described himself as a middleman who in October 1996 tried to arrange, with Ickes, $55 million in donations to tax-exempt Democratic-leaning groups that a wealthy business associate had offered to make after Meddoff had a brief contact with President Clinton.

During that contact at a $1,500-a-plate fund-raiser on Oct. 22, 1996, Meddoff said, he gave a business card to Clinton with a message written on the back: "I have an associate that is interested in donating $5 million to your campaign."

He said Clinton then told him he was going to make a favorable decision in a policy area of interest to his company - the lifting of restrictions on humanitarian flights to Cuba.

"You can tell your poeple I have made a decision and they would be able to fly," Meddoff quoted the president as saying.

A few days later, Ickes called Meddoff from the White House and began a series of discussions about arranging donations from his business associate from Texas, Bill Morgan, to tax-exempt groups tied to Democrats.

Medoff said his boss was expecting a large business windall and wanted to make a $5 million donation immediately, followed up an addition $50 million over the next 10 months. He said when he mentioned to Ickes that Morgan wanted his donations to be tax-deductible - donations to political candidates and parties cannot be deducted - Ickes said there were tax-exempt groups favorable to Clinton that would be available.

A few days later, he said, Ickes called from aboard Air Force One and made an urgent solicitation to get some of the $5 million early.

"We have an immediate need for $1.5 million in the next 24 hours. Can you get it to us?" he quoted Ickes as asking. Ickes then faxed his a detailed list of where the money should go.

Ickes has told Senate investigators he does not recall asking Medoff to shred the doucment and does not believe he did it.

None of the donations were ever made.

The White House has said Ickes solicited no contributions, but merely advised Meddoff on where his friend could send tax-deductible donations. Meddoff has testified that Ickes called him about the donations from Air Force One and he called Ickes at the White House. Federal employees are barred by law from soliciting campaign donations from government locations.

The testimony came as Senate Governmental Affairs Committee members from both parties said Thursday it was time to change the focus of the hearings from fund-raising abuses in the 1996 election to the explosion of "soft money" in political campaigns.

This is a term for unlimited donations by corporations, wealthy individuals and labor unions that go for party-building activities, and which dominated spending in the 1996 presidential race.

The change in thinking was prompted by the increasing possibility that a campaign finance reform bill could reach the Senate floor within weeks. Committee members want testimony at the hearings to influence the legislation, which proposes a ban on soft money.

Democrats had been scheduled to present witnesses next week on possible fund-raising abuses by tax-exempt groups that supported the Republicans. However, Democrats have seen enough of the White House-is-for-sale theme that has dominated the hearings - and several said they gladly would give up their witnesses next week to concentrate on soft money.

Meddoff's allegations were linked to one of the key soft money issues: whether political parties and a category of tax-exempt groups are too closely linked.

Known as 501(c)(3) organizations, these charitable and educational groups are exempt from paying federal income taxes, and contributors can take tax deductions for their donations. But the organizations are required under the law to stay aloof from partisan politics.

By The Associated Press

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