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Let's Go To The Videotape

As Reno sharpens her focus on Gore, Senate donorgate investigators receive a surprise package: recordings of the controversial White House coffees

By Michael Duffy and Michael Weisskopf

Time cover

(TIME, October 13) -- The three-man teams lurk outside the Oval Office so much that White House officials barely notice them after a while. They look like any network news crew--a sound man, maybe a camerawoman and a guy toting a portable light--but they don't work for CBS or NBC. Instead they toil long hours behind the scenes, roaming from the East Room to the West Wing, waiting for Bill Clinton to arrive, shake hands and say a few words. They turn their tapes over to the White House Communications Office, which uses the videos for p.r., as favors for Administration allies, and for posterity.

And now, it turns out, for investigation. Over the weekend, a government source told TIME, the White House quietly turned over dozens of videotapes made during presidential fund-raising events in 1995 and 1996 to congressional and federal investigators. The tapes, recorded at private fund-raising "coffees" inside the White House and at a handful of dinners Clinton was host for at the nearby Hay Adams Hotel, could go a long way toward clarifying whether the presidential events were just "listening sessions," as White House officials insist, or illegal fund raisers plain and simple, as Republicans have charged.

Either way, the tapes will surely complicate the questions facing Attorney General Janet Reno, who has been trying to decide for weeks whether the President and the Vice President broke federal fund-raising laws. It will not make things easier for Reno that the release of the tapes to investigators came just hours after she had informed House Republicans that Clinton's White House coffees "involve mere access to the President" and therefore needed no further investigation. At the same time that she was issuing her statement last Friday, Reno extended by 60 days her probe of Vice President Al Gore's dialing-for-dollars on federal property, and she must decide next week whether to continue the separate probe, now under way, into the President's phone calls from the White House to donors.

Whether or not there is evidence of wrongdoing on the videotapes, their belated discovery is certain to anger top federal investigators, who were unaware that the tapes existed at all, and will add to the pressure on Reno to appoint an independent counsel. All materials related to the coffees, which would seem implicitly to include any videotapes of the events, were subpoenaed earlier this year by the Justice Department and two congressional panels. The tapes represent the first major batch of new material released by the White House to investigators since the spring.

The videotapes are apparently not complete, start-to-finish records of the coffees and dinners; White House TV crews provided only partial coverage of the events. A government source said the tapes turned up only recently in the White House Communications Office in the Old Executive Office Building. Investigators will want to review the tapes, but will also want to know how, in the past eight months, the tapes came to be lost and found.

It will hardly come as a surprise that White House officials reviewed all the tapes last week before sending them to the Justice Department and Senator Fred Thompson's Governmental Affairs Committee. The 103 White House coffees were the most creative--and controversial--fund-raising technique invented by either party for the 1996 campaign. There was no admission fee per se, but past donors and potential givers were treated to a special set of Washington briefings with top officials that culminated in an hourlong session with the President. The events normally took place in the cozy, first-floor Map Room, a tastefully furnished, book-lined enclave in the Executive Mansion where F.D.R. charted the Allied advances in Europe. Coffee was served, along with pastries. More than 1,500 people attended the coffees; while not all were donors, computer analyses later credited the guests with pouring more than $27 million into Democratic coffers before or after the events.

Some Republicans have claimed that the coffees, even if they just happened to provide donors with access to the President, stretched campaign-finance laws to the breaking point. But Clinton and the Democrats have said all along that the events were designed for an exchange of ideas, not for direct fund raising or swapping dollars for favors. "I can tell you categorically," Clinton said in January, "that no decision ever came out of any of those coffees where I or anyone else said, 'This person is a contributor of ours. Do what they ask us to do.' But I think those meetings are good. I think the President should keep in touch with people."

Most of the coffees drew about a dozen business executives, many of whom were being rewarded for past giving or being courted for new contributions. But if Clinton didn't solicit funds at the sessions, others allegedly did it for him. At a coffee in the Map Room on June 18, 1996, Democratic National Committee fund-raiser John Huang introduced the President to 13 guests with a sell that was anything but soft. "Elections cost money, lots and lots of money," he reportedly said, "and I am sure that every person in this room will want to support the re-election of President Clinton." This account, by a Johns Hopkins University professor who testified before Congress in September, has been disputed by others who attended--a dispute that could be resolved by the tapes. Huang has refused to testify to congressional investigators.

Some of the coffees flirted more obviously with influence peddling. When Clinton met in May 1996 with top officials from J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, Chase Manhattan and other major financial institutions, the President brought along his top banking regulators, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig. But what has made the coffees especially controversial is that in addition to traditional political donors, Clinton acted as host to foreigners and special pleaders in the listening sessions. In February 1996 Clinton met with Wang Jun, whose many businesses include an arms-trading company owned by the People's Republic of China. And then, on April 1, 1996, Clinton held a coffee for a group of 15 that included Roger Tamraz, a Lebanese-American businessman, who asked Clinton to support his proposal to build an oil pipeline to the Caspian Sea. At the coffee, Clinton asked his longtime aide Mack McLarty to follow up with officials at the Energy Department. By the time of the coffee, Tamraz had donated $195,000 to the Democrats in pursuit of his goal; before he was done, he would give nearly $300,000.

Reno's decision last Friday to dismiss a host of complaints about Clinton's fund raising, including the coffees, now looks premature. The fact that neither Reno nor her investigators viewed the tapes before dismissing the matter could make it even harder for the Attorney General to avoid seeking an independent counsel to investigate the entire fund-raising mess. The Justice Department has already been faulted for overlooking evidence during its probe of almost a year--evidence that was readily available to reporters.

Which probably explains why Reno was careful last week not to rush to judgment about the White House telephoning sessions by Gore and Clinton. Gore said Friday that Reno's decision to extend her review of his calls was no surprise, and he vowed to cooperate. "I remain confident that everything I did was legal and correct," said Gore. But while it appears that Gore and Clinton are in the same legal boat over the phone calls, a top Justice Department official cautioned that the two cases are far from identical. Gore's calls are well documented, and Gore has admitted to connecting with donors on 46 occasions. Not so with Clinton. While investigators have D.N.C. "call sheets" urging Clinton to press fat cats for cash, they have yet to prove the First Dialer actually picked up the phone--and if he did, whether he ever got around to soliciting any money. If it was no more than good-ole-boy small talk, Reno may say there is no reason to pursue the matter further.

The job of making sense of the Clinton videotapes will fall first to Fred Thompson, which is sort of an irony all its own. For it was Thompson, then a 30-year-old minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee, whose staff helped unearth the existence of Richard Nixon's secret White House recording system. The Clinton videotapes may not be incriminating, and they were never designed to be secret. But they can't be dismissed, for in Nixon's case the tapes proved to be the most powerful witness of all.

--With reporting by Elaine Shannon and Karen Tumulty/Washington

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