09/30/97 - 07:33 PM ET - Click reload often for latest version

Congress makes calls on federal property

WASHINGTON - While the Justice Department investigates use of the White House to solicit political donations, a trip down Pennsylvania Avenue could uncover the same activity under the Capitol dome.

Former members of Congress and staffers said such solicitations have occurred in congressional offices in the past and that they believe they still go on - even though they may violate criminal law and ethics rules that prohibit fund raising in government buildings.

"I don't think any will admit it, but it's so damn hard not to occur," said Dennis DeConcini, who retired in 1994 after 18 years as a Democratic senator from Arizona.

If lawmakers want to stay within the law and avoid political ruin, they can raise money legally by using telephones near the Capitol - in space rented by the Republican and Democratic congressional campaign committees.

One former Democratic House member who left Congress after 1992 said: "It was common knowledge that members made calls from, and received calls in their offices. It wasn't much of an issue until recently."

It got sticky whenever donors called the lawmaker's office in response to a solicitation. "I would say something like, 'I'm having a fund-raiser but I'll have to call you back.' I felt that was fine," he said.

The former lawmaker, now an attorney and lobbyist, is the recipient of fund-raising solicitations that "periodically" have a congressional number left for a return call.

Former Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., said, "You ought to be able to make phone calls from the office if you put in your own line or use your own cell phone. You're paying for it."

DeConcini would call donors from a cellular phone while standing outside the Capitol.

"One phone was paid for by my campaign and the other was a Senate phone," he said. "I hoped I didn't take the wrong one."

Every so often, a lawmaker's questionable fund raising becomes the subject of news stories. For example:

-Articles, quoting sources, said lobbyist Mark Siegel returned calls to the office of Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., leader of the House investigation on campaign finance abuses. A federal grand jury is investigating Siegel's contention that in some of those conversations, the lawmaker demanded that the then-lobbyist for Pakistan raise at least $5,000 for Burton's re-election.

Asked on television whether he made illegal fund-raising calls from his congressional office, Burton responded, "I can't say never, categorically, but I don't remember ever making them."

-Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., a member of the Senate panel investigating campaign fund raising, left a message on a prospective donor's answering machine soliciting a $1,000 ticket for a fund-raising event. Smith left his Senate phone number for return calls. He currently is chairman of the Senate's ethics committee.

-Sen. Christopher S. Bond, R-Mo., when he was vice chairman of the Senate GOP campaign organization, sent a fund-raising letter and told prospective donors they could respond by calling his Senate office.

-Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, was quoted as saying he raised money for his 1996 presidential campaign from his office. "As long as I pay for the calls, I can make calls wherever I want to call," Gramm said.

The rules for members of Congress are stricter than for the executive branch. In the first step toward determining whether an independent counsel is needed to investigate Vice President Al Gore and President Clinton, a Justice Department review has to sort through vagueness in the law prohibiting fund raising from federal property.

While Gore has admitted making such calls from the White House and Clinton said he may have done so, it is not clear whether the criminal statute applies when recipients of the calls are off federal property.

Appropriations statutes and Senate rules close that loophole for lawmakers, by prohibiting use of official resources and expenditures for political activity - making it irrelevant whether an individual is on U.S. property when solicited. But these laws and rules do not carry criminal penalties.

DeConcini said that as late as the 1988 campaign, "I remember people in the cloakroom (a lounge for senators just off the floor) with lists (of donors), making calls.

"I remember people sitting there and comparing lists."

By The Associated Press

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