- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2000

The Democratic National Committee is to blame for illegal foreign contributions during the 1996 election because it shut down for economic reasons a vetting process aimed at identifying unacceptable donors, President Clinton told federal investigators.
Mr. Clinton, during a four-hour interview by the Justice Department's campaign finance task force, said he was "livid" after learning of the DNC's decision to eliminate the previously required background checks to save money saying it "put all of us in a very bad position."
"I don't know who made the decision. I don't know how they did it. Nobody wanted to be the father of that decision once this came out," Mr. Clinton said. "All I can tell you is that I was livid about it … and I thought it was wrong not to vet these things."
The president's comments are documented in a 155-page transcript of an April 21 interview by task force chief Robert J. Conrad Jr., who is probing campaign finance abuses by the Clinton-Gore Re-election Committee and the Democratic Party.
Mr. Clinton told Mr. Conrad he did not learn of the decision to stop the background checks until the end of the 1996 campaign and immediately ordered the organization to set up a new vetting process. He said he also hired a law firm to get the records in order, spending $4 million in the process.
In response to questions by Mr. Conrad, the president declined to place blame on specific DNC officials, although he noted that "people who were in high positions of responsibility" left after the plan was uncovered. Those leaving the DNC in late 1996 were its chairman, Donald Fowler, and Marvin Rosen, the DNC's finance chairman.
"Marvin Rosen resigned and then Don Fowler left," Mr. Clinton said. "Everybody that was responsible for it was gone."
In 1997, the DNC acknowledged it had not done a good job of vetting prospective donors and set up a new system to correct the matter. Mr. Fowler, who now runs a South Carolina communications firm, did not respond to calls to his office yesterday for comment. Mr. Rosen also was unavailable for comment.
The president also told Mr. Conrad that despite attending numerous fund-raisers at which wealthy foreigners were introduced to him some through interpreters he had no concern that illegal donations would find their way into the DNC or the Clinton-Gore Re-Election Committee.
"I thought if anybody tried to give us money that they shouldn't, that it would be checked and found out and returned," Mr. Clinton said. "You have to understand, it never occurred to me that this wasn't being done until I heard about it. As far as I am able to determine, not a single, solitary soul in the White House was ever told that this vetting operation was dismantled … for economic reasons."
But in a 1998 report, Charles G. LaBella, who formally headed the campaign finance task force, called Mr. Clinton a key player in a 1996 fund-raising scheme designed to "raise money by whatever means and from whomever would give it, without meaningful attention to the lawfulness of the contributions."
Mr. LaBella noted that former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes, who directed the 1996 campaign from his West Wing office, was the liaison between the White House and the DNC, and he described Mr. Ickes as a "Svengali, assuming power with the imprimatur of the president to authorize DNC and Clinton/Gore '96 expenditures."
He said the White House, in order to raise "enormous sums of money" to offset 1994 losses to the GOP, relied on the "calculated use of access" to Mr. Clinton "as leverage to extract contributions from donors hoping to enhance their own business positions."
"All pretense of maintaining discrete areas of responsibility and control were shattered as the need for campaign funds driven by the media campaign increased," Mr. LaBella said. "Such blurring of lines is troubling because it triggered an intermingling of funds, resources and personnel that resulted in the circumvention and violation of campaign contribution regulations."
The Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which concluded in 1997 that the DNC had "dismantled its own internal vetting procedures," said the DNC would not have hired one of its top fund-raisers John Huang were it not for Mr. Clinton's insistence. Mr. Huang raised $1.6 million that later was returned because of its questionable legality.
The Conrad interview covered a number of topics, but the task force chief, a career prosecutor, left no doubt he was looking for answers to tough questions of immediate concern to investigators.
He opened the session by saying, "We are here to ask you a series of questions with respect to matters and individuals that are under investigation by the campaign finance task force, and would request and expect truthful and complete answers from you."

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