WASHINGTON -- She says she doesn't want to ask, but it sure sounds as though Sen. Hillary Clinton wants her $850,000 back.
Clinton confirmed yesterday that she is open to re-collecting money that her campaign is returning to donors solicited by discredited Democratic fundraiser Norman Hsu. But she said she was not overtly making such a request.
"I'm not predicting that. We are not asking that that be done," Clinton said. "But I believe the vast majority of those 200-plus donors are perfectly capable of making up their own minds of what they will or won't do going forward."
Clinton made her comments during a conference call with reporters to discuss last night's fundraising event at the Montgomery County home of Weldon Latham, a Washington lawyer.
Former President Bill Clinton joined his wife at the event as part of a national swing he is making in the final weeks of the campaign finance reporting period that ends this month. Candidates rush to fill their coffers as the deadline approaches to demonstrate their strength and momentum, but the ex-president's efforts take on added importance in light of the fundraising turmoil now surrounding the campaign.
Clinton staffers arranged the conference call to talk about diversity and the candidate's appeal to minority communities (Latham is black) and urged participants to stick to those topics.
Nonetheless, rules were bent and Clinton was compelled to address the larger fundraising question hovering over her campaign and the contributions delivered by Hsu, one of her top money-raisers.
Clinton campaign aides have said she would return money to the 260 donors whose contributions were bundled by Hsu, who burst onto the political scene a few years ago, became a leading Democratic fundraiser and is now an embarrassment to the campaigns of Clinton and other Democrats.
Hsu, who failed to appear for sentencing in a 1992 fraud conviction, recently turned himself in to California authorities, fled the state and was recaptured. He has been hospitalized in Colorado and his fundraising activities are now the subject of an FBI inquiry.
Even before the Hsu episode and the return of the $850,000, Clinton has been in a close fundraising race with Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who reaped $3 million last weekend from an event at Oprah Winfrey's estate in California.
Clinton sidestepped a question yesterday about whether Winfrey's decision makes her effort to reach out to minority voters more difficult.
"I am going to the voters on my own merits, on my own record, on my own agenda as to what I will do as president," she said.
The minimum donation for the Maryland event was $1,000, and Latham said he expected about 300 guests at his house. A total take of $500,000 was "not unreasonable," he said.
The Clintons arrived together last night, their sedan pulling into the driveway of Latham's brick home on the edge of the Avenel golf course at 7:45 p.m. Mrs. Clinton was greeted first by Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, who bounded from the SUV in which he had been waiting.
"How are you?" she exclaimed with a hug, launching into hushed conversation while Bill Clinton paced the edge of the driveway. After they were done talking, the Clintons greeted their host, and entered the house to the accompaniment of flashing cameras.
Gov. Martin O'Malley, who has endorsed Clinton, did not attend last night's fundraiser. A spokesman said O'Malley was participating in a screening of a World War II documentary for veterans.
Latham, 60, who has held government positions under both Republican and Democratic administrations, said he has spent significant time convincing African-American professionals to donate to Clinton. He said that blacks "are very proud of the fact they have a legitimate candidate running for office who has a legitimate chance."
But Bill Clinton's commitment to diversity among judges and Cabinet officials and Latham's conversations with Mrs. Clinton led to his endorsement.
"Certainly, every group says who is going to be the best person for our group," he said. "There is every indication to me, and I made this personal decision, that the person best qualified to represent our nation, our world and the African-American community is Hillary Clinton."