- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 14, 2000

Vice President Al Gore and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee sought a $100,000 donation from a wealthy Texas lawyer in 1995 after promising that President Clinton would veto a bill limiting damage awards in product-liability cases.

According to documents obtained by The Washington Times, the requests came in separate telephone calls by Mr. Gore on Nov. 30, 1995, and by DNC Chairman Donald L. Fowler on Dec. 13, 1995, to lawyer Walter Umphrey, senior partner at the Beaumont, Texas, law firm of Provost & Umphrey.

In a telephone call sheet prepared for the vice president by the DNC, Mr. Gore was instructed to ask Mr. Umphrey for $100,000 for the DNC's media fund.

A call sheet prepared by the DNC two weeks later for Mr. Fowler suggests the vice president did not reach his intended target. Two weeks later, the DNC chairman received a similar directive to ask Mr. Umphrey for cash.

"Sorry you missed the Vice President. I know [you] will give $100k when the President vetoes tort reform, but we really need it now. Please send ASAP if possible," the sheet says under "reason for call."

The Justice Department's campaign-finance task force has opened a preliminary investigation into the solicitation and the activities of Mr. Gore and others. The probe was ordered by task force chief Robert J. Conrad Jr.

Gore officials responded obliquely when asked about the documents.

"The Republicans and others have had this for more than 1,000 days and no one found it interesting until 1,000 hours before the election. Curious, isn't it?" said James Kennedy, director of communications for the vice president's office.

Mr. Kennedy declined to answer questions on whether there was a quid pro quo involved in soliciting campaign contributions from a lawyer who wanted tort reform vetoed.

Gore campaign spokesman Chris Lehane, asked last night by The Washington Times about the call sheets, dismissed the matter as "recycled partisan charges."

White House Deputy Press Secretary Jake Siewert said he did not "know enough of the facts" to answer specific questions about the call sheets. But he insisted Mr. Clinton "vetoed the tort reform bill because it was deeply flawed, not because of any" quid pro quo.

"We had a bill two years ago that we would have signed in a heartbeat that we thought was balanced and fair," Mr. Siewert added. "But Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott rejected it."

In the months after the president's veto, Mr. Umphrey contributed more than $42,000 to the party. In the four years since, he and his firm have donated more than $700,000 to the Democratic Party, according to federal election records.

Mr. Umphrey, who specializes in personal-injury cases for labor unions, could not be reached last night for comment. Mr. Fowler, who now runs a South Carolina communications firm, also was unavailable.

On May 2, 1996, Mr. Clinton vetoed the Common Sense Liability Reform Act, which had passed in the House, 259-158, and the Senate, 61-37.

Among other things, the bill would have given defendants protection against damages for harm due to the plaintiff's own use of drugs or alcohol; reduced manufacturers' liability; required plaintiffs to prove the harm they suffered was the result of gross negligence or intentional conduct; and limited punitive damage awards.

After the Clinton veto, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, now the Democratic vice presidential candidate, expressed deep frustration with the action. In a Wall Street Journal interview that year, the Connecticut Democrat described trial lawyers as "a small group of people who are deeply invested in the status quo, who have worked the system very effectiviely and have a disproportionate effect."

Mr. Umphrey's law firm donated $30,000 to the DNC on July 17, 1996, and $10,000 to the DNC on Nov. 13, 1996, according to federal Election Commission records. The firm had given $7,500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee on April 30, 1996 two days before the Clinton veto.

The Gore telephone solicitation was scheduled two days after the vice president had attended a Nov. 28, 1995, fund-raiser at the Beaumont, Texas, home of lawyer John Eddie Williams, who also has been described as a Democratic Party campaign contributor. Mr. Umphrey also attended the Beaumont event.

Mr. Gore's call also followed by nine days a Nov. 21, 1995, meeting at the White House attended by Mr. Gore and Mr. Clinton, where DNC and Clinton-Gore Re-election 1996 Campaign officials discussed a split of soft- and hard-money donations. Notes from the meeting confirm that Mr. Gore was present when campaign officials discussed how soft money he sought would be diverted directly to the Clinton-Gore re-election effort.

The notes, by David Strauss, Mr. Gore's former deputy chief of staff, described a 65 percent to 35 percent split of soft and hard money for the DNC. Soft-money donations to parties for issue ads and party-building activities are unlimited. The use of soft money to help elect a specific candidate is illegal.

Mr. Gore has denied any wrongdoing in fund-raising calls he made from his office, citing "no controlling legal authority" showing any violation of the law. Justice Department campaign task-force investigators said at least five of the persons solicited by Mr. Gore gave money that was deposited, in part, into DNC hard-money accounts.

Attorney General Janet Reno declined to seek the appointment of an independent counsel in the case sought by former campaign task force chief Charles G. LaBella and FBI Director Louis J. Freeh saying there was no credible evidence to show Mr. Gore knowingly violated the law.

She said while interviews concluded Mr. Gore was present when soft- and hard-money donations were discussed, no one recalled "any particular questions or comments by the vice president." She said there was no evidence he heard the statements or understood their implications.

Mr. Gore told FBI agents he never heard comments made during the meeting because he was drinking "a lot of ice tea" and may have been in the bathroom.

• Andrew Cain contributed to this report.

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