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House Judiciary Committee Minority Counsel and Rep. Boehner Debate Merits of Latest Fund-Raising Charges Against Gore

Aired September 14, 2000 - 2:03 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Justice Department may take another look at Democratic Party fund-raising ahead of the 1996 election. Critics are suggesting today that the DNC linked donations from a group of wealthy Texas lawyers to President Clinton's plans to veto a tort reform bill. Such a quid pro quo could be illegal.

The allegations stemmed from a "call sheet" intended to be read over the phone to potential donors. It was prepared for then DNC chairman Don Fowler, and it reads: "Sorry you missed the vice president. I know you will give $100,000 when the president vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible."

Vice President Gore had dinner with these lawyers in Houston in late 1995. Democratic officials say Gore was later asked to call the group to ask for money. But a Gore spokesman says he didn't follow through and that task fell to Fowler. Fowler says he doesn't remember making such a call and, if he did, he would never have used such language. Fowler attributed the legally questionable call sheet language to a young, inexperienced aide.

In any event, donations from the five prominent Texas attorneys and their firms ballooned from $747,000 before the veto in May of '96 to nearly $4 million today, according to "The New York Times" and a nonprofit research group in Washington.

A Gore spokesman says, these documents regarding the DNC's fund- raising were gathered in the original look at the '96 campaign. He questioned the election-year timing of any possible new investigation.

Let's look more at this with Julian Epstein. He is minority counsel to the House Judiciary Committee. He reviewed the evidence involving Gore fund-raising, and he joins us from our Washington bureau. And on Capitol Hill, John Boehner, Republican congressman from Ohio. He suggested the president vetoed the tort reform bill to keep donors happy.

Thanks to both of you for being here.

JULIAN EPSTEIN, MINORITY COUNSEL, HOUSE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: Good afternoon, Natalie.

ALLEN: Good afternoon. First to Mr. Epstein. Was this information we are talking about today included your review of what Janet Reno was using regarding the vice president's fund-raising practices?

EPSTEIN: Well, yes, in a sense it was. I think the question about timing is important because the Republicans have had this information in the Congress since 1997. It's interesting, just weeks before the election that they want to dribble this out to press. I think it suggests an undeniable fact that the polls show that the Republicans are losing this election, both in Congress and in the presidential race, and they want to now start throwing mud, the way they've done in the last three elections, and they have lost each time.

I just want to show you a front page copy of "Roll Call," which is the Capitol Hill newspaper. Today reads that the House GOP targets Gore with its official congressional campaign investigation. They want to use the official processes of government to influence these presidential elections.

As far as the merits on this matter, I think this is really something that would have to be characterized as silly season. There is no doubt that the low-level campaign official, the scrawl that she put on a note to the committee chairman was probably ill-advised. But nobody suggests, and there is no evidence that any solicitation was done improperly.

And in fact, the reason that the president vetoed the Product Liability Law in 1995 was because it would have shielded such people as Firestone as from some of its liability. And the president's opposition to it has been widely known.

So trying to create a link there is, as I say, is really silly season.

ALLEN: What about this incredible increase on the part of Texas lawyers to the Gore campaign?

EPSTEIN: Well, Natalie, I would have to say, if one thing said that is some reason for investigation, I would have to suggest there's a long list of paper trail, which looks, if you look at the contributions of the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry, the tobacco industry, the gun industry, the polluters, you would see huge amounts of soft money given to the RNC and to Republican members, who then turn around and do their bidding in Congress on a wide range of special interest legislation.

So if that's the standard with which we are going to unleash these investigations, then I think there is a whole bunch of investigations that I think we would like to see into why the Republicans want to hold up a prescription drug benefit for seniors, why the Republicans don't want to HMO reform, when they are taking huge amounts of money from the special interests in these areas.

ALLEN: Let's bring in Congressman Boehner to respond to this. What about the timing of this, congressman? This memo came out in '95, the veto occurred in '96, why is this an issue now?

REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R), OHIO: Well, Natalie, this morning's newspapers had accounts, where the Justice Department officials on background have told these reporters that this investigation has been rekindled.

I think this is coming out of the media, and the folks downtown have nothing to do with the release of these documents here on Capitol Hill. But the fact is, it makes no difference where it is coming from. What we have here is another example of Al Gore believing that he's above the law.

And the bigger problem here is that there's a continuing pattern of improper, unethical, impossibly illegal activities by Vice President Gore. It was Vice President Gore, about a year ago, who stood up and said, that there was no controlling legal authority over his activities in the White House, in terms of making phone calls and raising money for the Democrat Party.

EPSTEIN: Natalie, if I could just interrupt. With due respect to Congressman Boehner, these sound like talking points straight out of the Bush campaign or the RNC. What I think Mr. Boehner is trying to do is to very wrongfully try to impute the vice president. When, if you Look at the evidence here, it is clear that the vice president wasn't in any way involved in this. He didn't even make a phone call.

And I think, again, what this shows is that Republicans are now very nervous. All the polls show that they are losing on the issues, they are losing the congressional race, they are losing the presidential race. They want to do what they've done in the last three elections, which is to make innuendo-like accusations that they can't back up with any real facts because they believe this is the only way they can win elections.

(CROSSTALK)

EPSTEIN: ... suggest that Mr. Gore or Mr. Fowler did that was wrong. I defy you to do that on this program.

BOEHNER: Well, Julian, if you would let me finish. The fact is, it's the vice president who -- and the president who have been involved in a pattern of activities at the White House, from White House coffees, to the use of the Lincoln Bedroom, to fund-raising calls from the White House, to raise money to tarnish Republican candidates, including Bob Dole in 1996.

EPSTEIN: All of which is very consistent, Mr. Boehner, unfortunately with the rules of campaign finance, which you and the Republican Party don't want to change.

Let me say, secondly, there is a wide range of accusations of Republican fund-raising improprieties from the Dole campaign in '96, and including in this Congress.

As I stated, Republican continue to do the bidding of the pharmaceutical industry, of the insurance industry, of the gun industry, and you take huge amounts of money from those industries, those special interests, yet you never suggest that type of influence ought to be investigated. And I think that shows a double standard, and it makes people, with due respect sir, think that this is just more politics.

ALLEN: Response, go ahead, congressman.

BOEHNER: Natalie, I can just say this. It is Al Gore who stood before the American people and said there was no controlling legal authority over his actions of raising money in the White House. I'm troubled, and I think most Americans are troubled, to have a man such as Al Gore going to be sitting possibly in the White House as our president who believes he's above the law. I don't think that's what the American people expect of their president.

EPSTEIN: If you're that troubled by that, Mr. Boehner, do you think that the Bush campaign's misleading and I think arguably dishonest advertising, where they insert subliminal messages into their campaign ads, do you think that should be investigated?

BOEHNER: Listen, Julian.

EPSTEIN: Yes or no.

BOEHNER: I find it interesting that the Gore campaign sent a lawyer up here to throw all kinds of mud at Republicans to try to obscure the facts here. And the facts are -- is that there was illegal fund-raising done out of the White House, and Al Gore was involved in it.

EPSTEIN: I would say with respect, sir, that you cannot back that up with facts. But the question was, do you think that the Bush campaign's dishonest subliminal inserting of the word "RATS" into its campaign...

BOEHNER: That has nothing.

EPSTEIN: Do you think should be investigated, yes or no?

BOEHNER: I think they made a mistake.

EPSTEIN: But should it be investigated.

BOEHNER: This is about the Gore campaign and the Clinton-Gore activities in the White House.

EPSTEIN: This is about...

BOEHNER: I would hope that Janet Reno, after all of this time and all of this evidence, would finally appoint a special prosecutor to look at these allegations. And if she won't, the American people are the best prosecutors in the country, and they can make their decision on November the 7th.

EPSTEIN: I would just say, respectfully, Mr. Boehner, this is about whether or not we want to be even handed, and whether or not we want these institutional investigatory mechanisms to be political or nonpartisan?

Now, if you want to been evenhanded and nonpartisan, I think that you should say that there should be investigations when they're showing a Republican wrongdoing. I have outlined many possible accusations on Hill...

BOEHNER: There certainly have been.

EPSTEIN: ... and I ask you about the Republican campaign now, the Bush campaign...

ALLEN: OK.

EPSTEIN: ... its use of its commercials, whether or not it should be investigated, and you clearly ducked that question, which I think shows a lack of equality on your part.

ALLEN: Thank you both for a lively debate.

BOEHNER: Natalie, thank you.

ALLEN: Thank you. It will go on. Julian Epstein and John Boehner, thank you both.

EPSTEIN: Thank you.

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