The Clinton re-election campaign of 1996 exemplified much that is wrong with our campaign finance laws. The campaign turned a small loophole in our campaign laws--which allows parties to raise unrestricted money for "educational" expenditures--into a yawning cavity. Campaign officials also broke existing laws against laundering contributions and raising money from foreign nationals. But did Vice President Al Gore engage in serious illegal actions that would have merited investigation by a special prosecutor?
And even if not, is there something about his conduct in that campaign, or in previous campaigns, that makes him unfit to be president?
George W. Bush and the Republican Party plan to answer yes to all of the above. Before the election is over, they hope that Americans will be repeating the phrases "no controlling legal authority" and "raising money from Buddhist monks" in their sleep. But nonpartisan proponents of political reform, such as the Center for Public Integrity, have also raised doubts about Gore's fundraising practices. And some liberal Democrats who plan to vote for Gore in November privately express grave reservations about his conduct. Are these reservations justified?
Gore's role in the 1996 campaign was not pretty, but the charges of criminal corruption don't hold up. There are certainly reasons to criticize his conduct and, perhaps, to question his commitment to reform, but these have to be weighed ultimately against the conduct and commitment of his opponent.
"No controlling legal authority." During the campaign, Gore made 61 fundraising calls from his White House office. According to the Pendleton Act, which was adopted in 1883, it is "unlawful for any person to solicit or receive any contribution ... in any [federal government] room or building occupied in the discharge of official duties." On the surface, that would seem to apply to Gore's fundraising calls, but the Pendleton Act was not meant to bar federal officials from telephone solicitations aimed at private individuals. There were no telephones in the White House then. The act was directed toward federal employees asking for money on federal premises from subordinate employees who might fear for their jobs. Thus while Gore spoke maladroitly, he actually got it right when he said there was "no controlling legal authority" for his actions. Indeed, in its report on the campaign finance scandals, Senator Fred Thompson's Committee on Government Affairs acknowledged that the statute didn't apply to Gore's fundraising. The vice president did not break the law, the report concluded, because there was no evidence that "any individuals called by the vice president were on federal property when they were solicited."
The controversy over the phone calls has lingered partly because Attorney General Janet Reno invoked still another ambiguity in the act to justify not appointing an independent counsel to investigate the phone calls. Reno argued that the Pendleton Act applied to soliciting "hard money" for campaigns, not to soliciting "soft money" for political parties as Gore had in his calls. But after Reno's decision, investigators discovered that some of the money Gore raised was used for the presidential campaign. In addition, testimony by former Chief of Staff Leon Panetta has cast doubt upon Gore's repeated assertion that even if some of the money was used for the presidential campaign, the vice president believed he was only raising "soft money." My conclusion: Who cares? Under the Pendleton Act, Gore's calls were not illegal either way.
The Buddhist temple. In April 1996, Gore attended a fundraising luncheon at the Hsi Lai Buddhist temple in Hacienda Heights, California. This event, which was organized by Maria Hsia and John Huang, raised $166,750 for the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Much of this money was raised illegally; the laws broken were far from being trivial or outdated. There were $55,000 in contributions laundered through monks and nuns, who made the contributions in their own names and were then reimbursed by the temple from its general funds. At least three of the contributors were foreign nationals. In addition the temple, which enjoys tax-exempt status as a religious institution, was used illegally for partisan politics. Insofar as the monks were reimbursed with temple funds that came from tax-free donations, American taxpayers indirectly subsidized Gore's fundraising effort.
There are two separate issues: whether Gore knew he was attending a fundraising lunch, and whether he knew that Hsia and Huang were raising some of the funds illegally. Afterward, Gore said the lunch was for "community outreach," then later that it was "finance related," and then later that it was devoted to "donor maintenance." Right before Super Tuesday this year, Gore said, "I made a mistake. I should have known that it was related to fundraising. I did not." Gore's denial on this count is not convincing. He had worked closely with Hsia, a Taiwanese-born immigration consultant in Los Angeles, and Huang, the assistant to Indonesian businessman James Riady, since January 1990 when he accompanied them on a junket to East Asia. They had raised money for his Senate campaign in 1990--one Los Angeles fundraising event that year included monks from the temple--and for the Clinton-Gore campaigns in 1992 and 1996. In return, he had done political favors for them. His only connection to Hsia, Huang, and the temple was through fundraising. Also, Gore's staff referred to the luncheon prior to its taking place as a "fundraising" event, and the guests at the luncheon included DNC officials, who, as Gore well knew, would never have attended a mere "community outreach" event.
But Gore has denied knowing that Hsia and Huang were laundering money through Buddhist monks, and no one has uncovered any evidence to the contrary. It is very unlikely that even a wonky stickler like Gore would examine where each contribution to a DNC fundraising event was coming from--particularly in the midst of a presidential campaign. And the lunch itself was dominated by wealthy Asian Americans from southern California. My conclusion: By attending the luncheon, Gore showed extremely poor judgment, but there is no evidence that he knowingly violated campaign laws that ban money laundering and foreign contributions.
The Chinese connection. In September 1993, Hsia and Huang sent $60,000 in laundered and foreign money to the DNC. The next day, Gore's Chief of Staff Jack Quinn met at their behest with Shen Jueren, the head of China Resources, a company that has been linked to Chinese intelligence. Thompson's committee report describes Hsia as "an agent of the Chinese government" and Huang as having had "a direct financial relationship with the Chinese government." Thompson's committee also fingers Ted Sioeng, an Indonesian-born businessman who contributed $400,000 to the DNC between 1995 and 1996 and who sat at the head table with Gore at the Buddhist temple luncheon, as a Chinese agent. Based on these connections, some Republicans are speculating that Gore and Clinton were involved in a secret deal with the People's Republic of China that went something like this: In exchange for campaign contributions from Hsia, Huang, and Sioeng, they agreed to meet with prominent PRC officials and to make various concessions to Chinese policy. One Republican Senate staffer told me that in order to make this case, the Bush campaign and the Republican Party will begin airing the photo of Gore sitting with Sioeng and Hsia at the temple luncheon.
There are no grounds, however, for believing that Clinton and Gore made such a deal. Thompson's committee offered merely circumstantial evidence that Hsia and Sioeng were Chinese agents. The committee also did not uncover any evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, of a campaign deal between the administration and the PRC. Robert Angel, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina who has studied Asian attempts to win influence over American policy, says, "Gore and Clinton certainly relied on these sleazy fundraisers, but there is no evidence that they sold out to them. There was no quid pro quo." My conclusion: There is nothing here except irresponsible partisan warfare.
The rogues' gallery. Liberals as well as conservatives have criticized Gore for surrounding himself with a rogues' gallery of fundraisers and contributors. Several besides Hsia have been charged with campaign finance violations, including Tennessee real estate developer Franklin Haney (later acquitted) and Miami businessmen Howard Glicken and Mark Jimenez. Other close Gore associates--including Maryland real estate developer Nathan Landow, former chief aide Peter Knight, and current campaign manager Tony Coehlo--have been embroiled in nasty scandals and controversy. Coehlo, for instance, resigned from Congress in 1986 under charges that he had received a special deal from a junk bond dealer; more recently, he was reported to have taken advantage of his job as head of the U.S. Pavilion at the 1998 World Exposition in Portugal to gather perks and employ relatives. Anyone who wants further details about Coehlo and other individuals can find them in The Buying of the President 2000, a study by the Center for Public Integrity.
On this count, however, Gore is the rule rather than the exception among ambitious politicians, who pick fund-raisers solely on the basis of how much they could raise. And many of the people who raise money for politicians do so in order to win political influence for their own businesses. Hsia may have been an agent for the Chinese government, but her initial motive in attaching herself to Gore seems to have been to improve her standing as an immigration counselor and to influence the Immigration Act of 1990. Most politicians who harbor larger ambitions surround themselves with these kinds of fundraisers. Hsia, for instance, also funded Illinois Senator Paul Simon, a Democrat known for his purity.
Consider even John McCain: The three men who played the greatest role in his political fortunes--former businessman and later Governor Fife Symington, former savings and loan executive Charles Keating, and beer magnate and McCain's father-in-law James Hensley--were all convicted at different times of illegal business practices. McCain has repudiated Keating, but not the other two men. Does that prove McCain is corrupt? Or merely that our present campaign finance system encourages unseemly connections? My conclusion: Gore can't be faulted for his fundraisers--not until he appoints one of them secretary of commerce.
Quid pro quos. Gore's critics charge that he does special favors for his contributors. That's certainly the case. In response to his contributors, Gore has sometimes championed legislation that he might otherwise have quietly voted for. When Hsia asked him to put his name on a controversial provision in the Immigration Act of 1990, he became a co-sponsor. He would have voted for the measure anyway, but Gore, who had displayed no interest in immigration, would not have become a co-sponsor. Gore has also, it seems, occasionally defied his own principles in order to please a contributor. According to The Buying of the President 2000, Gore, who headed the administration's task force on reinventing government, included a provision in the 1995 National Performance Review that allowed oil companies, including key Gore contributor Occidental Petroleum Corporation, access to public lands--not the sort of provision you'd expect the author of Earth in the Balance to back.
But Gore is not simply a creature of his contributors. Sure, he may have given the nod to Occidental in the National Performance Review, but he took a leading role in investigating the Love Canal disaster, which was caused by an Occidental subsidiary, and in sponsoring the first Superfund bill. He also pressed for the global warming treaty over the objection of many of his business contributors. My conclusion: Gore's record on quid pro quos is fairly typical of politicians and bears out the need for campaign finance reform.
Gore's sincerity. Critics charge that Gore can't really be trusted as an advocate of campaign finance reform. In 1993 he and Clinton reneged on their commitment to get a proposal through Congress. And he didn't make it an issue in the campaign until he realized that he had to counter Bill Bradley's proposal. But the congressional Democrats deserve most of the blame for abandoning campaign finance reform in 1993, and Gore's initial reticence in this year's campaign was due to his fear that he would remind the public of the campaign scandals of 1996. It is true that Gore did not take the lead in supporting campaign finance reform when he was in Congress, but he did regularly vote for the most comprehensive proposals. Says former Common Cause Director Fred Wertheimer, "As a Tennessee House member, he was prepared to support public financing. That wasn't popular for Democrats from the South." Now, in the wake of John McCain's success, Gore has made campaign finance reform a "top priority" and proposed a comprehensive plan of his own, including a national endowment to finance congressional elections. It's not a perfect plan, but it's better than anything already on the table, and it offers the kind of specific commitment that Gore will have trouble ignoring if he is elected. My conclusion: Question Gore's timing on reform, but not necessarily his sincerity.
Gore acted egregiously and stupidly in visiting the Buddhist temple, but he didn't break any laws and was not involved in any kind of plot with the Chinese agents. As a candidate and politician over the years, Gore has surrounded himself with fundraisers of dubious reputation and has sometimes done favors for them, but he is, in this respect, no different from other politicians, including his Republican rival for the presidency. Where he differs from his rival is that he at least has made a commitment to reform for which he might be held accountable. ¤