WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The partisan sniping over campaign finance escalated sharply yesterday, as Republicans on the Senate investigating committee turned up the heat on Vice President Al Gore and the national Democratic chairman responded by accusing the GOP of trying to destroy his party.
What began as a routine session of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee -- the general counsel of the Democratic National Committee was the witness -- degenerated into a two-ring circus, with some of the best theater playing in the hallway outside.
After a full day of Republican attempts to prove that Gore should have known his fund-raising phone calls were illegal, Democratic Chairman Steve Grossman tried to upstage the committee by showing up, unannounced, to denounce it.
Most of the reporters in the hearing room fled into the hallway outside to hear Grossman scold the GOP for conducting what he termed a "wildly inappropriate partisan witch hunt" designed to destroy the Democratic Party.
At the same time, however, Grossman was forced to apologize for money transfers, made by the DNC in 1995 and 1996 without the knowledge of some of its biggest donors, that left an as-yet undetermined number of contributors in at least technical violation of campaign laws.
The practice, revealed yesterday by the New York Times, has been discontinued, said Grossman, who took over as DNC chairman in January.
Watching all this intently from a few feet away was Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, who had left the hearing room moments earlier. "This is a lot more interesting out here than what's going on inside," he remarked.
But the Pennsylvania senator quickly became a target of Grossman's ire. The effort by Republicans to ratchet up the political pressure on Gore, the Democratic chairman said, "simply is poppycock. It won't wash, Arlen."
Specter was among several committee Republicans who said they believe Gore likely knew he was raising "hard" money, as opposed to "soft" money, when he solicited funds from 86 donors in 1995 and 1996. That distinction could prove pivotal as Attorney General Janet Reno considers whether to request an independent investigation of Gore's fund-raising activities.
In rejecting a special counsel to investigate Gore earlier this year, Reno maintained that the law that prohibits political fund raising in government offices covers only the raising of campaign contributions specifically covered by strict federal limits, so-called hard money.
In his fund-raising phone calls, Gore was seeking larger, unlimited soft money contributions of $25,000 to $100,000 each.
Following the recent disclosure that $120,000 of the money raised by Gore was redirected by the DNC to its hard money accounts, Reno announced that she was reviewing the question of seeking a special prosecutor. And Republican senators tried to use the hearing to prod her to do just that -- by attempting to show that Gore knew, or should have known, he was raising hard money.
DNC counsel Joseph Sandler testified that the party routinely directed the first $20,000 of most large contributions to its hard money accounts. Any amount over that would go into the soft money accounts.
The committee's Republican staff conceded to reporters that they have no evidence that Gore was specifically informed that this was the DNC's practice.
But Sandler was repeatedly questioned about a White House memo, addressed to President Clinton and Gore, which warned that a shortage of soft money was keeping the party from buying more TV commercial time. Attached to the Feb. 22, 1996, memo was a two-page memo about the DNC's media buys.
Included in the attachment was the following definition of federal (hard) and non-federal (soft) monies from the DNC perspective: "Federal money is the first $20,000 given by an individual. Any amount over this $20,000 amount from an individual is considered non-federal ."
Republican senators interpreted that as informing Gore of the party's internal procedure for allocating funds. But committee Democrats, and the DNC's Sandler, disagreed, calling it nothing more than a practical definition of the difference between hard and soft money.
Lanny Davis, a White House spokesman who was also on hand in the hallway outside, told reporters Gore believed that he was only asking for soft money in his phone solicitations. Gore did not understand the DNC's practice of reallocating funds at the time, he added.
Since the controversy broke last spring, Gore has maintained that he did nothing wrong in dialing for money. He has also said he will never again make such calls.
Pub Date: 9/11/97