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Letting Clinton off the hook on fund raising


WASHINGTON -- While President Clinton awaits the verdict of the House on impeachment, he can at least breathe easier on the matter of his 1996 campaign fund raising, thanks to Attorney General Janet Reno.

Ms. Reno's decision not to appoint another independent counsel to look into allegations that Mr. Clinton violated federal law in soliciting and spending funds for his re-election campaign was not unexpected, after her repeated unwillingness to do so in the past.

But the evidence remains that Mr. Clinton blithely thumbed his nose at the law. A clear condition of the federal campaign subsidy that he accepted for the 1996 general election campaign was that he not raise or spend any additional money for his own election.

While the Supreme Court has ruled that campaign spending is an exercise of free speech and hence spending limits cannot be imposed on a candidate, they can be applied if he or she agrees voluntarily to them as a condition of receiving the federal largess. Mr. Clinton and his Republican challenger, Bob Dole, did so in each ac- cepting about $13 million for the primary election period in 1996 and about $62 million for the gen- eral election campaign.

Federal money for the primary election period is doled out to candidates on the basis of a dollar for every dollar raised privately. In the general election in the fall, however, the party nominees are not supposed to raise or spend any funds whatever for their own election as the condition for accepting the much larger federal subsidy.

Federal Election Commission auditors have recommended to the commission -- split evenly, three Republican and three Democratic members -- that Mr. Dole be required to pay back $17 million and Mr. Clinton $7 million, for having exceeded the limits. Mr. Dole's is the larger figure because he exceeded the limits for the primary period, in which he had com- petition from several candidates. Mr. Clinton had no primary opposition in 1996, and he has been charged by the auditors with exceeding the general election limit of $62 million.

The allegations result from the auditors' determination that ads run by the respective parties purporting to advocate issue positions really boosted the candidacies of Mr. Dole and Mr. Clinton. Hence, the auditors say, they amounted to in-kind contributions that should have been assessed against the federal limits accepted by the two candidates in taking the subsidies.

These allegations constitute a portion of the charges of fund-raising excesses against Mr. Clinton that have now been brushed aside by Ms. Reno. It has also been charged that the president and his aides colluded with state parties to run millions of dollars of so-called issue-advocacy advertisements that were basically pitches for Mr. Clinton's re-election.

The Clinton defense has been that his campaign lawyers and those of the Democratic National Committee informed him that the practice did not violate federal law and, therefore, there was no intent to breach it, as required for a criminal indictment. Ms. Reno accepted that argument in her decision.

But Dick Morris, the political consultant who worked closely with Mr. Clinton in the 1996 campaign, wrote in his book, "Behind the Oval Office," that Mr. Clinton "became the day-to-day operational director of our TV-ad campaign. He worked over every script, watched each ad, ordered changes in every visual presentation and decided which ads would run when and where."

Mr. Morris also wrote that although Mr. Clinton "complained bitterly at having to raise this much money" -- Mr. Morris put it at an astounding $85 million, more than the federal subsidy -- he continued to attend so many fund-raisers that he had trouble handling his official duties.

Ms. Reno could have waited until the FEC ruled on its auditors' recommendations before deciding whether Mr. Clinton's campaign activities deserved an independent counsel's scrutiny. But she didn't, indicating once again that for all her image as independent and tough-minded, Mr. Clinton has a member of his team he can count on at the head of the Justice Department.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 12/09/98

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