Soft money, soft law, hard morality Statute: Whether a special prosecutor is needed to investigate President Clinton largely hinges on an ambiguous statute dating from 1883 and revised in 1980.


WASHINGTON -- Nearly a quarter-century ago, the politicians cut a deal with the voters: In exchange for public financing of presidential elections, candidates would no longer seek big-money contributions.

That agreement -- designed to avoid another Watergate scandal -- seems to have been all but ignored by the time of the 1996 election.

Led by President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the Democrats raised a record $123 million in "soft" money -- donations, frequently in amounts of $50,000, $100,000 or more, and not limited by federal law. (Republicans did even better: $138.2 million).

Much of the money raised by Democrats found its way into an expensive ad campaign run out of the White House by Clinton, Gore and their top advisers. Clinton strategists boasted that the ads, which others saw as scarcely disguised Clinton campaign commercials, made the difference in his re-election.

Clinton and his lawyers insist that the ads were legal, because they did not contain an overt "vote for Clinton-Gore" message. Attorney General Janet Reno earlier sided with Clinton in rejecting demands that she request an independent counsel to investigate whether the Democrats' use of soft money in the 1996 election violated the law.

Now, however, she has begun separate reviews of Clinton and Gore that could lead to the appointment of a special prosecutor. The focus is on a seemingly trivial part of the overall money quest: telephone solicitations made from the White House by Gore, and possibly Clinton as well.

Paul West of The Sun's Washington Bureau offers questions and answers surrounding the fund-raising controversy:

Why have phone calls become the focus of Reno's investigation?

Reno hasn't said. But the White House phone calls have been the subject of news reports, which disclosed that money raised by Gore may have been used illegally.

Reno appears to have painted herself into a corner. In rejecting earlier demands for a special counsel to investigate Gore's fund-raising calls, she said that the law against fund raising in a federal office does not apply to raising soft money. After a newspaper report disclosed that some of the money Gore raised found its way into non-soft-money accounts, Reno apparently reconsidered.

Who made fund-raising calls?

Clinton says he can't remember making any, but he doesn't rule out the possibility. Documents uncovered by investigators suggest that Clinton did make some calls to fund-raising targets, but it's not clear whether he actually solicited anyone for money. Campaign aides asked him to make as many as 40 calls, and at least five people on his call list gave between $50,000 and $100,000.

Gore has admitted contacting at least 46 Democratic donors in calls made from his office.

Has anyone ever been prosecuted for making calls like the ones Gore made, or Clinton may have made?

No. That's one reason Gore famously claimed that there's "no controlling legal authority" that says he broke the law.

Is that important?

It could be. There's no requirement that a special prosecutor be appointed if the Justice Department has a policy of not enforcing the law in question.

So the attorney general could decide not to appoint a special prosecutor simply on the grounds that it would be unfair to subject the president and vice president to a higher standard than, say, members of Congress who may also have made fund-raising calls from their offices?

That seems unlikely, since the whole purpose of the independent counsel law is to have an outside review of any allegations that involve high administration officials. If she again rejects the idea of a special prosecutor, it would probably be on the theory that laws were not broken.

Presidents and vice presidents spend lots of time traveling around the country to appear at fund-raising events that raise millions of dollars. So what's wrong with making a few phone calls for campaign contributions?

Perhaps nothing.

So why the fuss?

Because it is a crime to solicit or receive contributions for a federal election in a federal office building.

And does that law apply to the president and the vice president?

The White House says no, but the Justice Department said in 1979 that they are covered. The law applies to anyone who draws his salary from the federal government.

Why was such a law needed in the first place?

To stop shakedowns of federal workers by their bosses. The law was enacted in 1883 and revised in 1980.

Are there allegations that Clinton and Gore were shaking down federal workers?

No. But there are conflicting opinions on whether the law applies to soliciting money from anyone, not just federal workers. The Watergate special prosecution force didn't think so, but the Justice Department has said it does.

Does it matter where the calls were made from?

Maybe. If Clinton made calls from the residence portion of the White House, or rooms used for entertaining, it probably was acceptable, since those are not considered federal offices.

How are "hard" money and "soft" money involved?

Post-Watergate campaign reforms restricted contributions in a federal election. A $1,000 limit was placed on individual contributions. Those donations came to be known as hard money.

What's soft money?

Donations to political parties that are not covered by federal limits. That includes money from corporations and labor unions, which cannot give directly to candidates. Soft money was supposed to be used for party-building activities, such as registration drives or "Vote Democratic" ads.

Would Reno consider requesting a counsel to look into soft-money abuses and illegal foreign contributions? And what about connections between the Democrats and illegal Teamsters Union fund raising?

She could. But Reno appears to be focusing her investigation on much narrower grounds.

Under a strict reading of the law against asking for contributions on federal property, it is not a crime to solicit soft money, because soft money isn't considered a contribution under federal law.

In other words, if Gore was dialing from his office for a $100,000 contribution to the Democratic Party, that would be OK. But if he asked for $1,000 for a specific candidate, that might be illegal?


But Gore was only raising soft money. So what's the problem?

At least $120,000 of the soft money he raised wound up in hard-money accounts at the Democratic National Committee. Gore has said he was unaware those transfers were made.

Some of the money donated by those whom Clinton was asked to call also wound up in hard-money accounts. That's why Reno wants to find out whether Clinton or Gore knew that some of the money eventually wound up going to their own campaign.

And if a special prosecutor is named, what will he or she be looking for?

It depends on what Reno requests. One obvious question is whether anyone solicited by Clinton or Gore got favorable treatment from the administration in return for a donation.

But no one knows where the inquiry might go. History has shown that independent-counsel investigations almost always take on a life of their own.

Pub Date: 9/24/97

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