WASHINGTON -- Vice President Al Gore, suddenly thrust into the middle of the controversy over Democratic fund raising, acknowledged yesterday that he had solicited campaign donations in telephone calls from his White House office, a practice he said he had been advised was legal and proper.
"I do not feel like I did anything wrong, much less illegal," Gore told reporters at a White House news conference. "I am proud to have done everything I possibly could to help support the re-election of this president."
Gore asserted that, as vice president, he was not subject to the ban on political fund raising by federal employees in federal buildings. Nevertheless, Gore said he was adopting a personal policy of not making such fund-raising calls "ever again."
The revelation that Gore had made such solicitations served to increase pressure on Attorney General Janet Reno to seek the appointment of a special prosecutor to look into Democratic fund raising. So far, Reno has resisted such urgings on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence linking Gore or President Clinton directly to any abuses.
Last week, however, a handwritten note that surfaced showed that Clinton himself had encouraged a system of inviting wealthy donors to sleep- overs in the Lincoln Bedroom. And yesterday, Gore conceded that he had personally participated in an activity -- soliciting donations while inside the White House -- that is at the heart of the furor over the Democrats' fund raising.
"My counsel advises me that there is no controlling legal authority -- or case -- that says that there was any violation of law whatsoever in the manner in which I asked people to contribute to our re-election campaign," Gore said in a defense that he repeated, virtually word for word, five times.
Gore conceded that in December 1995 and in the spring of 1996 he made calls on "a handful" of occasions seeking contributions. A Gore aide said later that there were fewer than 50 calls in all. Gore said that he charged the calls to a credit card belonging to the Democratic National Committee and that he had been advised there was "nothing wrong with that."
"Everything I did, I understood to be lawful," Gore said forcefully. "If there had been a shred of doubt in my mind that anything I did was a violation of law, I assure you, I would not have done that."
Gore remained unflappable yesterday, even when pressed on whether his potential presidential candidacy in 2000 had been ,, harmed at all by the latest furor.
"I've made no decision about that whatsoever," he replied coolly.
Legal experts said that the law regarding solicitation of political donations in federal buildings is complex and that it was not clear whether the vice president had committed any crime. Gore asserted that the law was intended to prevent government officials from soliciting federal employees in their offices; the law was not intended, Gore said, to bar a vice president from making fund-raising calls from his office.
"It's an open question," said Trevor Potter, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, now an attorney in private practice. He noted that there appeared to be only one court ruling interpreting the law -- a 1907 decision by a federal judge in Texas.
That judge ruled that the law, dating to 1883, was intended to protect federal employees from being solicited by their superiors for political contributions. The judge said both the person making the request for money and the one receiving it had to be in a government room or building for a crime to have occurred.
Members of Congress are routinely admonished not to make fund-raising calls from their offices. It is not clear, though, whether any official of the federal government has been prosecuted under the law, Potter added.
But a 1995 memo from Abner Mikva, a former federal judge who was the White House counsel at the time, advised Gore's staff and other White House employees that "no fund-raising phone calls or mail may emanate from the White House or any other federal building."
Even if Gore proves to have complied with the law, the latest revelations underscored how directly involved Clinton and Gore were in fund raising for their campaign and in a companion effort by the Democratic National Committee that broke all fund-raising records for the Democrats.
For weeks, as they defended the practice of holding Lincoln Bedroom sleepovers and more than 100 White House "coffees" for wealthy contributors, Clinton and his top White House aides have insisted that the letter of the law had been followed because no solicitation for funds was ever made on White House grounds.
These assertions were called into question by a Washington Post article Sunday that detailed Gore's personal involvement in raising contributions of $50,000 or $100,000. One anonymous contributor was quoted as saying that the vice president's phone call bore elements of a "shakedown."
Gore bristled at such an implication yesterday but volunteered that he was ending the practice of directly asking for political money.
Gore said the controversy underscores the need for campaign finance reform that would outlaw "soft money" -- unlimited contributions to political parties.
Democratic officials have emphasized that this system did not start with Clinton. One Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of California, went so far as to call yesterday for an inquiry into a 1990 reception for big-time Republican donors at former Vice President Dan Quayle's official residence. Waxman said that event appeared "to be the most explicit evidence of the use of federal property for fund raising that has yet come to light."
While Quayle was in office, his aides often boasted of his drawing power at Republican fund-raisers. But from his Arizona RTC office, the former vice president took heated exception yesterday to any attempts to liken what he did to Gore's actions.
"As vice president, I never solicited political contributions on government property, either in person or by telephone," said a statement issued by Quayle. "If it had been suggested, neither President Bush nor I would have tolerated it."
Another prominent Republican, Jack Kemp, also weighed in yesterday, adding his voice to the chorus calling for a special prosecutor.
"In my opinion, only an independent counsel and [a congressional inquiry] can fully explore the -- I'm going to use the word -- corruption of political fund raising in America," said Kemp, a potential challenger to Gore in the presidential race of 2000.
Reno had no public comment yesterday. She has already ordered a task force of 25 FBI agents and prosecutors to investigate the uproar over campaign financing. One member of her staff suggested yesterday that Reno had confidence in those conducting that investigation.
"They've got the expertise," said one Justice official. "They've been doing it since the 1970s -- and they've gone after Democrats before."
Pub Date: 3/04/97