WASHINGTON -- Rep. Helen Delich Bentley charged yesterday that she was offered "way up in the six figures for my gubernatorial campaign" if she would abandon her vociferous opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement and vote for the pact.
Speaking on a Baltimore radio show, the Baltimore County Republican, who announced her gubernatorial candidacy Wednesday, refused to identify the source of the offer. Later in the day, speaking through aides, Mrs. Bentley backed away from the allegation.
Asked if Mrs. Bentley would report the offer to federal prosecutors, two aides said there was nothing to report because there had been no "quid-pro-quo" proposition.
Chris Griffin, an aide who spoke to her after a reporter asked about the allegation, said, "There was no serious offer of money for her vote." Instead, he added, "The opinion was voiced from some people that her campaign would probably do well with these people if she voted in favor" of the agreement. He did not identify "these people."
Mrs. Bentley has been campaigning tirelessly against NAFTA, an agreement that would create a huge free-trade bloc of 360 million people by gradually eliminating trade barriers among the United States, Mexico and Canada. One of Capitol Hill's most ardent protectionists, she has held a clear position on NAFTA for months, and she would be virtually assured of losing her credibility with many supporters if she switched sides at this late date.
The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the deal, and President Clinton has been campaigning vigorously for approval. Both sides in the fight have claimed this week that they have the votes to prevail.
Mrs. Bentley made her allegation yesterday morning on a WCBM talk show whose host is Zoh Hieronimus, herself an opponent of NAFTA. Ms. Hieronimus said that Mrs. Bentley called the show while listening to it and that they had a discussion that lasted about six minutes. During that discussion, Mrs. Bentley talked about the intense lobbying pressure focused on Congress.
"I have never seen such a lobbying effort in my life," she said, according to a tape of the show. "The pressure is tremendous. The dollars have to be gigantic."
After claiming that "maybe a handful" of House members "truly believe" that NAFTA is good for the country, Mrs. Bentley said, "For your information, I was offered way up in the six figures for my gubernatorial campaign if I'd switch my vote."
Her statement yesterday may be the first public allegation of an offer connected to NAFTA that could be interpreted as illegal.
It could also be an illegal campaign contribution if it came from a single source. Maryland law says an individual can give no more than $4,000 to a single candidate, and political action committees can contribute no more than $6,000 to a candidate during a four-year election cycle.
Gary P. Jordan, the first assistant U.S. attorney in Baltimore, refused to comment on Mrs. Bentley's statement, which he had not heard until a reporter called him.
But, he said, "Hypothetically, if any public official is offered money for personal benefit or campaign coffers that is linked to a specific vote, the person making such an offer is guilty of a bribe," and prosecutors would expect the public official to report the bribe attempt. The public official would not be guilty of a crime unless the offer were accepted.
Mrs. Bentley or any other public official could be subpoenaed to testify about such an offer, he said. But he made it clear that such a subpoena would be highly unlikely unless prosecutors had specific information and were sure that they were not simply dealing with political rhetoric.
After her brief appearance on the radio show, Mrs. Bentley left for Columbia, Mo., where she was to receive a journalism award from the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
She could not be reached for comment.