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White House, Justice: Williams Did Nothing Wrong


WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, March 5) -- Administration officials say the first lady's chief of staff, Margaret Williams, was within the law when she accepted a $50,000 "soft money" donation at the White House. The Justice Department is backing them up, though for a different reason.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said this morning that Williams followed the procedures outlined by the White House Counsel's office when she accepted a check from California businessman Johnny Chung at the White House and then turned it over to the Democratic National Committee.

McCurry went on to make a distinction between "accepting" donations and "receiving" them, saying all Williams did in accepting the donation was to pass it on, which, McCurry says, she is allowed to do.


Meanwhile, Justice Department lawyers are offering a simpler argument. While the Hatch Act explicitly forbids government workers from knowingly accepting political contributions, Justice spokesman Bert Brandenberg told reporters this morning, "It is the established practice of career prosecutors of the Criminal Division that the definition of 'contribution' does not include most soft money contributions."

Brandenberg said Justice's view has been consistent at least since the Reagan Administration. But he emphasized that the specifics of each case may raise questions of legality.

Soft money -- largely unregulated gifts to support party activities -- has been at the center of much of the controversy over political fund-raising.

Asked by reporters about Justice's interpretation, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott replied, "I don't know about that. It may be or it may not be, and quite frankly, just because the Justice Department may have said that, I don't know that that is a fact. I'm not an expert in this field."


Meanwhile, Attorney General Janet Reno was repeatedly questioned at her weekly press briefing this morning on whether an independent counsel should be appointed to investigate Democratic fund-raising. But while she pledged to "clarify what the issues are" Reno maintained the threshold for triggering the independent counsel statue had not been met. By statute, an independent counsel is required if specific crimes are suspected of top White House officials.

Though Reno is resisting an independent probe, she's beefing up the Justice Department investigation. CNN has learned that six FBI agents will soon join the 25 already investigating the fund-raising matter.

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