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Pundits & Prose

Illegal, Improper And Fattening


By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

WASHINGTON (March 14) -- What a difference one word makes. Troubled by the narrow confines of investigating only "illegal" campaign financing, the Senate this week expanded its authority to also look into "improper" fund-raising.

That lifted the barrier to $4.3 million for Sen. Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Governmental Affairs Committee, to hire the lawyers and investigators and start sniffing along the money trail. It will be May, in all likelihood, before the committee begins hearings. The House will run its own investigation.

It's sure to get even more complicated than it already is. So clip the handy glossary below as a guide to future viewing of the trials and trails of campaign finance:


This is the compromise that broke the deadlock. Republican leaders -- but not Sen. Thompson -- had wanted to confine the investigation to the potentially ILLEGAL actions taken by Democrats in raising funds for the 1996 presidential campaign. Presumably, those which are ILLEGAL are also IMPROPER.

Democrats -- with growing support of Republican moderates -- sought the broader scope of investigating those murky fund-raising practices which may be IMPROPER by today's politically Puritan measure, but are not ILLEGAL. (See "soft money.") The Dems motive may not be entirely pure. Republicans raise more of such money.

Now the committee may poke its investigative nose into everyone's business in the mega-million 1996 campaign. It's all proper and legal.


This is what President Bill Clinton has been courting, it seems almost nightly, at fund-raising dinners while proclaiming by day his desire for campaign finance reform.

It's the SOFT MONEY which goes to political parties, rather than candidates, that allows the campaigns to get the benefit of tens of millions without having to account for it. It allows the big political spenders to exceed the $1,000 per candidate contribution limit. Soft laws make SOFT MONEY.


Vice president Al Gore's fund-raising phone calls from the White House were not illegal because there was "NO CONTROLLING LEGAL AUTHORITY." In other words, no one has ever been caught doing it before. Federal buildings are not supposed to be used for blatantly political purposes, though the president and vice president have some exemption. It was not ILLEGAL, but Gore's not going to do it anymore. (See IMPROPER.)


Would you send a contribution to Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign? Or Jiang Zemin's? No. Seems almost un-American, doesn't it? Better to let the CIA meddle in other nations' affairs.

So what were Chinese, Taiwanese, Indonesians and others seeking with their sizeable contributions to the Democratic National Committee? That's part of what Sen. Thompson and his investigators want to know.

It is ILLEGAL for non-resident aliens -- FOREIGNERS -- to contribute to U.S. campaigns. The impropriety of this money coming in from overseas is what has led the DNC to return several millions.


The Cheyenne-Arapahoe tribe of Oklahoma sent the Democrats $107,000 in the hope of winning support for the return of lands claimed by the tribe. If this system pays off for non-Americans, why not for Native Americans?

The tribe had to dig into emergency funds it uses to help struggling members pay their heating and hospital bills. All it got in return was the urging of party fund-raisers to contribute more to the Democrats. The DNC has now offered to return the money to the Cheyenne-Arapahoe.


"My staff is a POLITE and COURTEOUS group," First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton offered by way of explaining how her office had signed in Chinese-American businessman Johnny Chung (see "hustler," as Democratic officials themselves describe him) more than 20 times on White House visits.

On one visit Chung handed a $50,000 check to Mrs. Clinton's chief of staff, Maggie Williams, to pass on to the DNC.

"I'm sure she wishes she'd said 'go mail it'," Mrs. Clinton told reporters this week. "She's an HONORABLE and COURTEOUS person."

As for Mr. Chung and the Chinese-American and Chinese-non-American donations he produced: "I don't keep track who's waved in." (See NO CONTROLLING LEGAL AUTHORITY.)


If the National Security Council does not tell the president what it learned from the FBI about Chinese intentions to influence U.S. elections with campaign funds and the Justice Department does not know what the FBI tells the NSC and the FBI director does not tell the Attorney General and you're the Attorney General and the interagency sniping is getting hotter than a Chinese firecracker, you call it a "MISUNDERSTANDING." (See CHAIN OF COMMAND.)


If you're the president and all of the preceding has happened and you should have known but you didn't and you have a famous temper, do you let it out?

"What I seem and what I feel may be two different things," said an apparently unflappable President Clinton. "The older I get, the more I become aware of the fact that there's some things that there's no point in expending a lot of energy on. It didn't happen. It should have happened. It was a mistake."

O.K. for the president to say. Still baffling is why the information never made it up the CHAIN OF COMMAND to him.


A growing number of Republicans and some Congressional Democrats, too, are urging Attorney General Reno to seek an INDEPENDENT COUNSEL to look into the potentially illegal aspects. It would put the investigation in the hands of someone who was neither part of the Democratic administration nor the Republican-led Congress. So far, she's resisting, though she has the CONTROLLING AUTHORITY.


Will the excesses of the 1996 campaign lead to a change in the laws that govern political campaign funding?

The bipartisan McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill offers the possibility.

President Clinton has become an enthusiast for reform. That's not a tough stance to take when you know you won't be running for office again. He's now touting the idea of free TV time for candidates. (TV networks are not enthused.)

Democrats, for the most part, support the idea of financial reforms. Sen. John Glenn says the system -- especially the SOFT MONEY -- won't be cleaned up until there is public financing of congressional as well as presidential elections.

Republicans, whose money-raising machine is still the champion, mostly don't. This week they're offering seats at a "policy forum" with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and other top Republicans. Tickets are just $5,000 each. (See not ILLEGAL, but maybe IMPROPER.)

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