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Clinton Attends Exclusive Fund-Raiser, Draws Criticism

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amid an ongoing flap over campaign financing, President Clinton traveled to New York for an exclusive fund-raising event Tuesday that welcomed the sort of “soft money” donations that he has offered to forego if Republicans will do the same.

The event, expected to net more than $1 million, was sponsored by the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. It took place in a private Manhattan home for a well-heeled crowd of about 120, who offered contributions of $10,000 for candidates or $25,000 in unspecified “soft money” support.

Although the president has pledged that the Democratic Party would join with Republicans in eschewing soft money, Democrats have argued that to take the step alone would amount to “unilateral disarmament” in the big-money war that is largely played out through expensive advertising. The Republican Senate Campaign Committee vastly outspent its Democratic counterpart last year.

Even so, critics Tuesday seized on Clinton’s continued participation in such events as evidence that he is not committed to reforming the campaign finance system. A soft-money fund-raiser “fuels public cynicism” over the whole campaign finance system, argued Bill Hogan, an official with the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan watchdog group in Washington.

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“Why would he help raise money that he believes would be inappropriate for the Democratic National Committee to accept?” Hogan asked.

White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said that he strongly disagrees and maintained that the need for fund-raising would continue--although with tighter restrictions--under proposed reforms backed by Clinton that are pending in Congress. Campaigns “would be privately funded, therefore, there will be fund-raisers,” McCurry said.

Soft-money donations to political parties enable contributors to exceed the limits on money given directly to candidates or campaigns and permit corporations and labor unions to make donations. The parties use the soft-money donations for various activities, including television advertising that stops short of urging the election or defeat of specific candidates.

Both major parties raised soft money at a furious pace in 1995 and 1996, each gathering more than $100 million. Such efforts have entangled Democrats in damaging disclosures about contributors who gave money that they were not legally eligible to donate or who obtained access to the president and other top administration officials, often at White House coffees, apparently as rewards for contributions.

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Neither the senatorial campaign committee nor the White House released a list of participants in Tuesday’s event, although administration officials disclosed the site as the Eastside Manhattan home of Shelby and Katherine Bryan.

Earlier this month, Forbes magazine described Shelby Bryan as a 50-year-old “tall Texan” who is chief executive of ICG Communications, a Colorado-based firm that sells local telephone service primarily in Texas, California, Ohio and Colorado.

In the wake of the Democratic fund-raising missteps, Clinton has sought to raise his public profile as an advocate of campaign finance reform. For instance, in his State of the Union address last month, he appealed for passage of reform legislation by July 4.

Clinton also endorsed recent efforts by the Democratic National Committee to invoke unilateral restrictions on soft money, such as voluntarily banning any donation above $100,000 and all donations from foreign nationals. Clinton has also conceded that “mistakes were made” in Democratic fund-raising.

Democrats are not alone in soliciting big-money donations or coupling them with access to political bigwigs.

The Republican Party has scheduled a three-day recreational jaunt to Florida this month for its “team 100" of donors who have dished out at least $100,000. Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is to mingle with the elite donors.

Clinton has complained that Republicans have enjoyed a “free ride"--aggressively soliciting big-money donations without suffering the same media scrutiny as that given to the Democratic Party.

The president was reminded of that reality early Tuesday in New York City, when his motorcade passed an electronic billboard on the West Side Highway teasing that White House coffee costs "$200,000 a cup,” while Fairway Supermarket could offer one for just 65 cents that “tastes so much better.”

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