After last month’s disclosure that President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore had hosted 98 coffee klatches for Democratic supporters during the past two years, White House officials insisted that the private receptions were not fund-raising events and that none of those who attended were solicited in advance for contributions.
“We don’t sell access,” said Lanny Davis, a White House deputy counsel.
Amy Weiss Tobe, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, which sponsored most of the gatherings, was equally blunt. “There were no price tags for White House coffees,” she said.
But extensive interviews with party officials and finance workers indicate that the DNC methodically hawked the opportunity to chat with Clinton in the White House Map Room and sought specific sums from prospective participants, often as much as $50,000.
Indeed, numerous Democratic campaign officials acknowledge now that the committee’s fund-raising staff--under intense pressure from the White House to develop new sources of money for the high-budget national campaign last year--resorted to peddling the presidential coffees like products.
“In light of new information, it appears that some may have tried to put a price tag on coffees at the White House,” Tobe said Friday. “This is completely inappropriate and against DNC policy.”
New accounts detailing the selling of the coffee gatherings show they went well beyond the traditional use of the White House by a sitting president to rally support for his campaign. In their zeal to raise an unprecedented $120 million in “soft money” for a massive media blitz and other activities, officials in the Clinton administration and the national party appear to have disregarded the line that separates the general courting of political supporters from direct marketing of White House amenities.
“It is outrageous,” said Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, an independent watchdog group. “This is an example now of a quid pro quo--you give the cash, you get to see the president.”
Coffees May Test Campaign Laws
The bold use of the coffee klatches and several other kinds of presidential invitations is expected to be among the most difficult--and politically embarrassing--aspects of the current fund-raising controversy for the White House and Democratic leaders to explain as the Justice Department and congressional committees press investigations.
The practices may also pose a test for campaign laws.
Legal experts agree that it is a violation of federal statutes to promise a government benefit in exchange for political activity such as a contribution. However, the statutes are murky and rarely applied.
“This is unprecedented legal territory,” said Trevor Potter, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. “We have not been presented in the past with an instance of a White House putting a specific price tag on official meetings with the president and top government officials.”
New accounts of the once-modest White House gatherings show how they suddenly became such a campaign phenomenon and now such a problem for the administration.
The coffee receptions were started in early 1995 as a way for Clinton to re-energize disaffected Democratic fund-raisers following the Republican landslide in the 1994 elections. But as the 1996 campaign approached, Democratic staff members now acknowledge, the pressure to raise money transformed the hourlong chats with Clinton and Gore into a station in a fund-raising process in which wealthy donor candidates were systematically fed through and, in some cases, solicited for contributions.
The result was not only lucrative, according to some involved, but occasionally bizarre--sometimes the political equivalent of the bar scene in the film “Star Wars.” The president and vice president were surrounded by rotating casts of rich strangers with unknown motives or backgrounds, including some from faraway places who didn’t speak the same language.
Questionable Cast of Characters
Among those who sipped beverages with the nation’s commander in chief were a lobbyist who fought to get Africa’s most corrupt strongman into the United States, a Chinese arms company official, a convicted stock swindler and a multimillionaire forced to pay a huge fine for illegally wiretapping his work force.
White House officials stressed that the president neither solicited checks at any time nor knew that Democratic fund-raisers were setting prices for the coffees.
“I’m sure the president would regret any effort to market access . . . to the White House [or] a coffee,” said White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry. “But he understands that fund-raisers were working in an environment in which they thought they had to make up a disparity that existed between Democratic fund-raising and Republican fund-raising.”
At the same time, White House officials are remaining mum about another part of the fund-raising machine: the “Presidential Dinner List.”
Citing privacy concerns, they have refused to release the names to Rep. David M. McIntosh (R-Ind.), chairman of a House subcommittee investigating political use of a White House computer database.
Invitation Lists Include Celebrities
However, a copy of the dinner list obtained by The Times, dubbed “PDL” in the computer, shows nearly 900 celebrities and donors targeted for dinner invitations at the Executive Mansion. They included Hollywood stars such as Glenn Close and Lauren Bacall; athletes such as Mickey Mantle and Jack Nicklaus; and major DNC contributors such as film mogul Steven Spielberg, who has raised millions of dollars for Democrats, New York businessman Dirk Ziff, who gave $380,000 to the DNC during the past two years, and San Francisco businessman Walter Shorenstein, who donated $285,000.
“The fact is that Clinton enjoys having interesting, bright, successful people into the residence for dinner,” McCurry said. He added, “The dinners also were a perk that were given to people who had demonstrated some level of support or success in building support.”
But no donor perk was marketed more aggressively than the coffees. Four current or former DNC fund-raisers told The Times that committee finance staffers were instructed to try to turn invitations into donations of up to $50,000, although many recipients wound up paying considerably less. The Times reported earlier this year that donors who attended the coffees contributed a total of $27 million to the Democratic National Committee during the 1995-96 election cycle.
Many of the donors approached were wealthy entrepreneurs from New York and Florida, said the fund-raisers, who asked to remain anonymous. Some got invitations if they gave generously to Clinton’s 50th birthday party last August at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
The cash-for-coffee solicitations were made under the direction of former DNC Finance Chairman Marvin Rosen, who made some of the $50,000 pitches himself, the fund-raisers said.
“I can’t count the number of times I heard, ‘Tell them they can come to a coffee with the president for $50,000,’ ” said one fund-raiser who worked under Rosen. “It was routine. In fact, when [staffers] said, ‘This is all I can raise,’ they were told, ‘Keep selling the coffees.’ ”
Rosen, who resigned his post in December, declined to return numerous calls seeking comment. His personal spokeswoman, Marina Ein, said: “His mission was to raise money. . . . I have no reason whatsoever to believe he did anything improper or inappropriate.”
Several longtime donors were reportedly so angry with the heavy-handed tactics in the fund-raising operation that they complained to Democratic officials, according to party insiders.
Among those who reportedly expressed their dismay was Elaine Schuster, of Continental Wingate Co. in Boston, who contributed $35,000 to the DNC on Dec. 15, 1995--the same day she attended a coffee with Clinton in the Roosevelt Room. According to a DNC official, Schuster told party officials that she was furious about the direct solicitation she got. She declined to return repeated calls to her office.
The presidential access given to the donors angers some members of Congress, who say they hardly got any.
“The idea that others . . . simply because they’ve given large sums of money--have, in effect, more access to the president than we do is not only troubling, but offensive,” said a Democratic lawmaker who left office in January.
Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder, a Colorado Democrat who retired this year after 12 terms, said she had never been invited to the White House for an informal chat.
Yet those at the coffee klatches got plenty of time to air their views with Clinton and Gore.
Jonathan Slade, a Washington lobbyist for MWW/Strategic Communications of New Jersey, attended a reception with Gore in the Executive Office Building on May 2, 1996. The year before, Slade was hired to help obtain a visa for Zairian President Mobutu Sese Seko even though the State Department had accused the African leader’s security forces of torture and “extrajudicial killings” and despite Clinton’s ban against any Zairian official entering the United States. Mobutu did not get a visa. Slade emphasized his work on the Mobutu visa lasted only a month.
Records show that Slade’s firm gave $4,400 to the DNC in the months before and after the coffee.
Roger Tamraz, whose New York-based oil company gave $50,000 to the DNC, had coffee with Gore on Oct. 5, 1995, and Clinton on April 1, 1996. Tamraz is a former financier wanted on a 1989 international warrant stemming from his tenure as the head of one of Lebanon’s largest banks. The bank collapsed and Lebanese officials want him on charges of conspiracy and embezzlement--charges Tamraz has characterized as “harassment.”
Clinton Says One Guest Was ‘Inappropriate’
When news of his curious guests first broke, Clinton said it was “clearly inappropriate” for him to have met with Wang Jun, the head of a Chinese firm that was under investigation for illicit arms trading at the time of a Feb. 6, 1996, coffee. Wang’s visit was arranged by Yah Lin “Charlie” Trie, a Democratic fund-raiser who is the subject of Justice Department and congressional investigations.
White House spokesman Davis also has conceded that it “was not appropriate” for the president to sip coffee with Eric Wynn just a few months after his second conviction for penny-stock fraud. Wynn was fined $50,000 and sentenced to more than four years in prison, but was free on appeal at the time of his Dec. 21, 1995, coffee.
Another coffee mate for Clinton was John Catsimatidis, a Manhattan millionaire who owns the Red Apple Cos., which control oil companies and New York’s largest grocery chain. In 1991, a division of Red Apple pleaded no contest to 100 counts of possession of eavesdropping devices and paid a $1-million fine in what was then the largest illegal-wiretapping case in Pennsylvania history--one a deputy attorney general attributed to a “corporate criminal mentality.”
Catsimatidis, who also appears on the White House presidential dinner list, said he had no knowledge of the bugging operation at his own firm. He gave the DNC $25,000 in June, eight months after meeting with Clinton in the Map Room.
Times staff writers Alan C. Miller and Edwin Chen contributed to this story.
* FUND PROBE URGED
Independent counsel investigatgion of campaign fund-raising charges sought. A12