WASHINGTON -- Moving to quell another controversy related to Democratic fund raising, President Clinton ordered last night that "volunteers" who have been working at the White House while on the payroll of the Democratic National Committee be put on the government payroll.
It was disclosed this week that in the past four years, 20 White House aides had actually been working for the DNC. One worker had access to a White House data base on big donors that was off limits to fund-raisers.
Political fund raising inside the White House is illegal, and no one who raises money for the Democrats is supposed to have access to government files or data bases.
Mike McCurry, Clinton's press secretary, said DNC "detainees" had been employed in an effort to comply with Clinton's 1992 campaign promise to downsize the White House staff by 25 percent.
To justify hiring the DNC aides, the administration relied on two internal opinions by President Ronald Reagan's White House attorneys. But when those rulings were made public last night, the issue appeared far from clear-cut: A 1982 opinion states flatly that political work inside the White House would be illegal. In 1987, another Reagan lawyer softened that position, saying such personnel decisions should be made "on a case-by-case basis."
As of yesterday, five White House aides, two of them in Vice President Al Gore's office, were still on the DNC payroll. Last night, McCurry abruptly announced that all would be converted to the White House staff and the practice would be ended.
"It's a hassle," McCurry explained. "Frankly, we have plenty of questions we're dealing with day in and day out. We just don't need this at this point in time."
Meanwhile, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York became the first prominent Democrat to call for a special prosecutor to investigate the fund-raising issue.
Three years ago, Moynihan was the first Democratic officeholder to call for an independent investigation of Whitewater, a call that led to the appointment of a Whitewater special prosecutor.
In an interview with the New York Post, Moynihan said any independent counsel's investigation should examine possible abuses committed by Republicans as well as Democrats. But he made clear that he was most troubled by evidence that millions of dollars from overseas made their way into Democratic coffers.
"It's the foreign involvement," Moynihan said. The senator dismissed the Clinton defense that this administration had done nothing different from its predecessors.
"Everyone has Chinese arms merchants to lunch -- don't you?" Moynihan quipped in reference to one of the many shadowy figures who were granted access to Clinton for donating $100,000 or more to the Democratic Party.
Meanwhile, White House aides continue to fend off a barrage of revelations about the circumstances under which those contributions were made.
Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal detailed how Mark Jimenez, a computer executive with close business ties to Paraguay, was granted access to top White House officials last year -- and may even have influenced White House policy. In those meetings, Jimenez, a generous contributor to the Democratic National Committee and to Clinton himself, urged the administration to intercede to prop up Paraguay's threatened president -- which the president swiftly did.
Within days, Jiminez gave the DNC a check for $100,000.
An article yesterday in the Washington Post quoted an Asian-American business executive in Virginia as saying that John Huang, a Clinton friend and DNC fund-raiser, tried to launder about $250,000 in contributions through his association.
Huang, whom Clinton knew in Arkansas and appointed to the Commerce Department, has been at the center of much of the questionable DNC fund raising. More than $1 million of the money solicited by Huang has been returned because of its uncertain origins.
McCurry termed these allegations "surprising, troubling, and, in the president's view, items that obviously should be investigated."
But that investigation is a point of contention. It is being conducted by Justice Department prosecutors who report to a Clinton appointee, Attorney General Janet Reno. Reno has refused to appoint a special counsel, although she has been urged to do so by Republicans and watchdog groups such as Common Cause.
"It's going to be very hard for Reno not to appoint one," said Kent Cooper, head of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. "There is now a long litany of examples of questionable activity, and an independent counsel would be the best solution."
"These allegations are so serious that the truth can only be discovered by a prosecutor," said Bill Hogan of the Center for Public Integrity.
Pub Date: 2/21/97