- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2000

It usually follows that in politics, or in life for that matter, those who cry the loudest for reform are in most need of it.

It's the Saul of Tarsus syndrome where an epiphany turns a sinner into a crusader for right. Just stand up and say how wrong you were, take absolution and go forth to preach reform.

But for sheer audacity, nothing quite matches Vice President Albert Gore's pledge to make campaign fund raising reform the central issue in his race with George W. Bush, whom he hopes to paint as unrepentant on this issue. Taking a lesson in hypocrisy from John McCain's campaign play book, Mr. Gore seemed completely undaunted by new reports of his past indiscretions, and his continued exploitation of the system he condemns.

Mr. McCain, meanwhile, is expected to condition his support for Mr. Bush on a promise of wholesale funding reform. This despite the fact he was involved in one of the most notorious influence-peddling debacles of the modern era, and has repeatedly used his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to raise money. To refresh your memories, Mr. McCain and four other senators threw their weight around in behalf of ultimately convicted savings and loan swindler Charles Keating in trade for financial and other favors.

Mr. Gore, allowing he has seen the light, like Mr. McCain, now wants strict limits on soft money, funds which are supposed to be directed to general political activities not associated with any specific campaign.

Mr. Gore comes to this position shortly after being hammered once again with reports of his obvious duplicity in the 1996 presidential campaign funding scandal the worst in the nation's modern political history. He personally had a hand in raising hundreds of thousands in illegal campaign donations. Some of these funds were collected by a close, longtime associate recently found guilty of violating federal laws. It was she who staged the now infamous Gore appearance at a the Buddhist temple, an affair about which Mr. Gore initially lied.

He also apparently lied about his misuse of government property to raise money for the 1996 campaign, according to newly revealed Justice Department internal deliberations on his involvement. He was saved from possible prosecution only by the stubborn refusal of the attorney general to heed her own key advisers, several of whom were furious over her intransigence.

Janet Reno's hand-picked prosecutor in the case, Charles LaBella, FBI director Louis Freeh, and even her own political deputy, Robert S. Litt, strongly recommended that Mr. Gore's case be turned over to an independent counsel, arguing that under the circumstances, which included ample evidence of possible law violations, she was obligated to do so. Mr. Litt's position is particularly damaging to Mr. Gore because the Justice Department official usually opposed turning to independent counsels.

Mr. Gore, Miss Reno's own investigators discovered, probably knew despite denials that some of the money he was soliciting from his White House office was to go to the Clinton-Gore campaign and not just to the Democratic National Committee for non-specific, generic political activity. This is a direct violation of the law against using public property to raise political capital.

But not for nothing has Miss Reno managed to serve in her post longer than anyone in the history of the office. She clearly preferred to limit the scope of her prosecutions in this matter to small fry and to stay away from the White House. In fact, Mr. LaBella reportedly argued that, while the Justice Department was quick to begin aggressive investigations of lower-level people, there apparently was a much higher legal threshold for top White House officials.

In terms of seriousness, the campaign funding scandal was far greater than the Monica Lewinsky affair that brought about Mr. Clinton's impeachment. A White House made frantic by the 1994 Republican congressional election victory, violated every ethical and legal restraint imaginable to come up with millions of dollars for the 1996 campaign. The Independent Counsel Act was designed for just such a case, and when Miss Reno refused to use it, Congress let it expire.

Mr. Gore shouldn't be let off the hook because he had an attorney general in his hip pocket and now, in an effort to defuse the issue and pick up McCain supporters, finally confesses that he made a mistake or two.

Mr. Bush will be making a terrible mistake if he does not hold Mr. Gore accountable almost every day until November for the vice president's role in this national disgrace. It might do us all well to remember that only a few years ago the Clinton-Gore team came into office pledging the most ethical administration in history.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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