09/25/97 - 01:29 AM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Clinton had fund-raising breakfasts in '94

WASHINGTON - In his earliest known use of the White House for fund-raising, President Clinton hosted a series of private breakfasts with wealthy Democrats to help raise money in 1994 for the party's health care fund, documents show.

"BC will have breakfast - to raise $," then-White House deputy chief of staff Harold Ickes wrote in notes of a May 9, 1994 meeting obtained by The Associated Press.

The White House said Wednesday that at least 10 breakfasts or lunches hosted by President and Mrs. Clinton in 1994 in the executive mansion were specifically designed to generate "both political and financial support" for the Democratic Party's ad campaign on behalf of their ill-fated health care initiative.

The events pre-date the coffees and telephone solicitations from the 1996 election that are at the heart of the current fund-raising investigations in Congress and the Justice Department.

Several of the donors who attended the 1994 breakfasts gave five- and six-figure donations in the days after their visits, Federal Election Commission records show. Some attendees said Clinton did not specifically ask for donations at breakfast; they were solicited afterwards by fund-raisers.

The White House defended the breakfasts as legal, saying the Clintons' goal wasn't to raise money for their own political use but rather to air ads to repel special interest attacks against their plan seeking universal health care.

"This was a fight about securing health care for every American, and competing with an avalanche that was being used to defeat the president's initiative," White House special counsel Lanny Davis said.

Internal White House documents show, however, that presidential aides viewed the breakfasts as fund-raisers.

For instance, Ickes addressed the issue to then-Chief of Staff Mack McLarty in a May 7, 1994 memo entitled "scheduling fund-raising events."

"We need to schedule several additional breakfasts with the President to facilitate the additional fund-raising for the health care media campaign," Ickes told his boss.

Davis said the president attended at least eight fund-raising breakfasts, the first on May 5, 1994 and the last on Aug. 23, 1994. Mrs. Clinton also hosted a luncheon in April and a breakfast in June for health care donors, officials said.

"The purpose of the events was to generate support, both political and financial, for health care reform and thank those supporters who had contributed to the Democratic National Committee national health care campaign," he said.

"Of course, the president and first lady asked for people's help in combatting the Harry and Louise ads and other ongoing efforts to undermine the health care initiatives."

"These events provided them with the chance to discuss the administration initiative and to seek their support."

Attorney General Janet Reno is weighing whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the president and vice president. Federal law generally prohibits soliciting federal campaign contributions in government buildings.

Reno's current review is focused mostly on whether fund-raising calls from the White House in 1996 violate a century-old prohibition on soliciting contributions from inside government buildings.

Whether the earlier events will have much effect on those deliberations is not clear - donations to the DNC health care fund were mostly "soft money." The Justice Department has said it believe those donations are exempt from the prohibition on federal property.

An individual familiar with the planning of the breakfasts, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, said the events were designed to assist the party with raising money for a health care fund that was not a top priority for many big donors.

The individual said most of the breakfasts were dominated by "small talk' and not health care policy and that the plan in most cases was simply for the president to have "face time" with donors. Fund-raisers would ask for contributions before or after.

"If you are asking whether the intent was to raise money from these meetings, the answer is yes," the individual said. "The donors weren't naive going in about us wanting to ask them for money but the requests got made afterwards."

The fact that these were political events also weren't lost on donors - either DNC chairman David Wilhelm or the party's chief fund-raiser, Terence McAuliffe, are listed as attending most of the breakfasts.

Some breakfast attendees - sensitive about the recent debate about White House fund-raising - emphatically said they didn't recall Clinton making a specific solicitation.

"At the meeting I was at, there was no talk of donations. And that I'm prepared to swear to that in any forum," said Miguel D. Lausell, a lawyer from San Juan, Puerto Rico who attended a breakfast with a friend on June 15, 1994.

Lausell said Clinton spoke about minority issues and universal health care.

Lausell wrote a $100,000 to the DNC health care fund on July 18, 1994. The same day, his wife is listed as writing two checks - one for $80,000 to the health fund and another for $20,000 to the party's hard money accounts.

In the months that followed, Lausell was given royal White House treatment.

He was invited back for a second donor event a week after his breakfast, attended an official state dinner at the White House, was recommended for an overnight stay in the Lincoln Bedroom and named a vice chairman of the Democratic Party's fund-raising division, according to documents and officials.

"Absolutely not," Washington lawyer Gerald McGowan said when asked whether Clinton asked him for money during a June 22, 1994 breakfast.

Six days later, McGowan wrote a $35,000 check to the DNC health care fund. He said the donations was a coincidence and he did not even know his money had gone to the health care fund.

"I'm an old friend of the president's and I gave money and I was more than delighted to do it," he said.

Four invitees to a July 29, 1994 health care breakfast with Clinton all are listed as giving donations to the DNC fund two weeks later: Florida developer Carlos Herrera ($50,000), San Diego trial attorney William Lerach ($45,000), Thomas Stout of Washington, Pa., ($25,000) and Star Solan of Rancho Sante Fe, Calif. ($45,000.)

By The Associated Press

Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.