- The Washington Times - Monday, August 7, 2000

Common Cause has asked the Justice Department to "investigate and take action against" suspected illegal soft-money ad campaigns being waged by presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush.
In a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno, the public interest organization said the soft money ads "are clearly campaign ads designed and intended to promote the presidential candidates" and, as such, violate federal campaign finance laws.
Common Cause President Scott Harshbarger said in the July 27 letter that the ads are created and controlled by members of the presidential campaigns, are targeted to run in key presidential battleground states, are indistinguishable from other presidential campaign ads and "are without question for the purpose of influencing" the election.
"As soft money ads controlled by or coordinated with a presidential candidate, the ads violate the federal campaign finance laws, and will result in as much as $100 million or more in illegal funds being raised and spent in the 2000 presidential election, if the practice is not stopped," Mr. Harshbarger said.
Soft money donations are unlimited and go to issues rather than candidates, who receive regulated hard-money donations. Using soft money donations for direct campaign activities is illegal.
Common Cause first questioned the use of soft money donations during the 1996 presidential campaign, asking Miss Reno to seek the appointment of an independent counsel to investigate the millions of dollars Democrats and Republicans had spent on advertisements for President Clinton and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
The organization charged that the Clinton and Dole campaigns had engaged in "an illegal scheme to circumvent federal campaign-finance laws," saying that the candidates had "full control" of all phases of their advertising campaigns and used their political parties as mere conduits.
It said that because of that control, the money raised and spent for advertising was "for the purpose of influencing" a federal election and, as a result, constituted "hard" money donations subject to federal expenditure limits.
An assistant U.S. attorney assigned by Justice to "review and investigate" the Common Cause accusations later quit after his efforts to conduct the probe were blocked. The prosecutor, whose identity was deleted from recently obtained Justice Department records, said in a Dec. 23, 1997, memo that the campaign finance task force had been "unable to investigate" the accusations.
He concluded the public had been "disserved" by decisions not to proceed in the case.
In its new effort, Common Cause said the Justice Department's failure to investigate the Clinton and Dole campaigns "is now being used as license by the presidential campaigns to conduct even more massive illegal activities in 2000 than occurred in 1996."
Fred Wertheimer, former head of Common Cause and now chairman of the public watchdog group Democracy 21, joined in the call for the investigation. He said the Justice Department had an "obligation" to resolve the matter "and to do so in a publicly credible way."
"We call on the Justice Department to investigate the Gore and Bush soft money ads and publicly declare a position one way or another on the legality of soft money ads promoting a presidential candidate that are controlled by or coordinated with the candidate," Mr. Harshbarger and Mr. Wertheimer said in a statement.
"Given the fierce controversy that has existed both inside the Justice Department and in the public, we also call on you to appoint a publicly credible figure to lead the investigation and help resolve this controversy of enormous importance to the integrity of our democracy," they wrote.
Common Cause and Democracy 21 also filed a complaint last week with the Federal Election Commission asking for an investigation of the Gore and Bush soft money ads.
Several officials have recommended the appointment of an independent counsel to probe suspected campaign finance abuses, including FBI Director Louis J. Freeh; campaign finance task force chief Charles LaBella; Robert S. Litt, who served as the Justice Department's principal associate deputy attorney general; FBI Assistant Director James DeSarno, who headed the task force investigators; and FBI General Counsel Larry R. Parkinson.
In a Jan. 30, 1998, memo, Mr. Parkinson also addressed the Common Cause concerns, asking Deputy Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. why no inquiry had been ordered 16 months after Common Cause documented with "well-researched submissions" a finance scheme aimed at circumventing federal campaign laws "on a breathtaking scale."
Mr. Parkinson warned at the time that if the Common Cause accusations were not investigated by the task force, "it is unlikely that they will ever be investigated by anyone."
Miss Reno previously rejected calls for an outside counsel to probe campaign finance abuses, saying there was no "specific and credible evidence" showing that senior administration officials knowingly violated the law. A top Justice Department official confirmed last month before a House committee that Miss Reno is now reconsidering the appointment of a special counsel in the case.

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