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Democrats Wooed, but Never Won, Wealthy Iraqi

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Shortly after he was selected by President Clinton to lead an ambitious $40-million fund-raising drive for the Democratic Party, Texas oil magnate Truman Arnold alerted the White House to a prospective donor with deep pockets.

Nemir Kirdar “needs 5 minutes with [the president],” Arnold said in an April 26, 1995, telephone message left for then-Deputy Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. “We think he’s good for a solid million.”

Bowles then arranged for Kirdar, an Iraqi citizen and president of a Bahrain-based investment firm, to receive what officials acknowledge was “extraordinary access” to Clinton: a personal photo session in the Oval Office and a private meeting lasting 20 minutes that centered on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

The story of how Kirdar, regarded in financial circles as the ‘banker to billionaires,” got a one-on-one audience with the president provides a vivid behind-the-scenes look at how a prospective big donor was recruited and cultivated during the Democratic campaign.

“This is another example of what went wrong during the 1996 election with regard to the manipulation and misuse of the White House and access to the president,” said one administration official critical of the Kirdar episode.

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However, Kirdar’s experience was no typical favors-for-donors case. The effort at cultivating him and what it led to were both remarkable.

Executive Didn’t Fit Donor Profile

Over the course of the 1996 campaign, hundreds of business executives were herded through the White House for group “coffees” with the president. Already politically active, many jumped at the invitations and the chance to chat even briefly with Clinton.

But Kirdar, by all accounts, was completely disengaged, often overseas and tending his business. After he was identified as a prime donor target, a Democratic operative sought him out and pitched him on the idea of getting a private session in the Oval Office.

Also, unlike other invited business executives who got their visits and later made contributions, Kirdar never wound up giving the Democrats a dime. His foreign citizenship, apparently not fully understood by his suitors at the time, disqualified him as a campaign contributor. And he did not give to several other Clinton-related organizations, where his money would have been legal, as some had hoped.

Thus, as congressional investigators sort through evidence on controversial Democratic fund-raising methods, one embarrassing case stands out--a particularly aggressive effort made for a prospect, which provided exceptional access and yielded nothing in return.

Newly available documents obtained by The Times show that Kirdar’s Oval Office meeting was scheduled after repeated requests by Mark E. Middleton, a former White House special assistant to the president and now a central figure in the Democratic campaign-donations controversy.

Middleton, who became an international deal-maker after leaving the White House in early 1995, sought the Kirdar session at the same time he reportedly was scouting for Democratic political support overseas and also arranging visits to the executive mansion for prospective business clients.

Last November, Middleton was conditionally barred from entering the White House grounds for allegedly frequent misuse of his access to impress business clients. Federal and congressional investigators are also looking into allegations that he improperly sought political money during a trip to Taiwan in 1995.

Controversial Ex-Aide Pushed for Meeting

Middleton has refused to cooperate with congressional investigators and declined to be interviewed for this story. His attorney said Middleton courted Kirdar as a candidate for a hefty donation to a private foundation in honor of the president.

“Mark thought Kirdar was someone who might in the future be a potential contributor to a presidential library,” said Robert D. Luskin, Middleton’s attorney. “He thought it would be helpful to that end if [Kirdar] had an opportunity to meet the president.” Middleton also serves on the board of the Clinton Birthplace Foundation Inc.

Foreigners may donate to such organizations, though Kirdar did not.

But, administration officials confirmed, they were under the impression that the wealthy Kirdar could be helpful to the president and that the Oval Office meeting was arranged as a favor to Middleton.

“Mr. Bowles recognized Mr. Kirdar as a prominent businessman who owned reputable businesses, and he also saw him as a potential supporter of the president’s,” said White House Special Counsel Lanny J. Davis.

The issue of selling access to the president has been a focus of recent hearings by the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, which is investigating campaign fund-raising abuses. International businessman Roger Tamraz testified last month that he donated $300,000 to the Democratic National Committee--and was willing to contribute another $300,000--for the opportunity to meet with Clinton to discuss an oil pipeline deal. A U.S. citizen, he attended a White House coffee but was denied a private meeting with the president.

In Kirdar’s case, when it came to a private meeting, the prospect of a “solid” $1 million was apparently too tempting to pass up.

One administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the reaction of some at the White House to that sum would be “to let him sleep over at the Lincoln Bedroom for five straight nights.”

Money Note Bothers Some Democrats

The bold promise of money in Arnold’s message even jarred some Democratic loyalists.

“I literally blanch when I see that kind of note,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), a member of the Senate committee investigating fund-raising abuses. “This is what the money chase has done. . . . It’s legal, but it’s wrong.”

Kirdar’s credentials apparently caught the attention of Middleton and the White House. He is the founder and president of Investcorp, an investment bank headquartered in Bahrain and backed by financiers in the Persian Gulf. The firm has financed a number of high-profile acquisitions exceeding $5 billion, including the rescue of luxury goods maker Gucci and the takeover of posh retail outlets Tiffany & Co. and Saks Fifth Avenue. Forbes magazine reported in March that Kirdar, with his access to pools of Middle Eastern money, has established a “sensational” record of corporate turnarounds.

Kirdar, 60, said in an interview that he received a telephone call out of the blue one day from Middleton, who introduced himself as an assistant to the president and invited him to lunch at the White House mess. Middleton, a Little Rock, Ark., lawyer, had become a top assistant to senior advisor Thomas “Mack” McLarty after raising nearly $5 million for the president’s 1992 campaign.

Kirdar accepted the invitation and--during an October 1994 visit to the White House--Middleton told him “you are the kind of person we ought to know” and mentioned that a meeting with the president was possible, Kirdar recalled.

“I didn’t know this guy,” Kirdar said. “Frankly, I was a bit perplexed at what this whole thing was about. No one asked me for anything.”

In February 1995, Middleton left the White House to build his own international consulting practice, but he did not lose interest in Kirdar.

The first record of a request for Kirdar to meet the president is the White House phone message left by Arnold, who was Democratic National Committee finance chairman at the time. The message for Bowles, obtained by Senate investigators, reads:

“Wants to give you a heads up--Kirdar needs 5 minutes with POTUS [President of the United States]. We think he’s good for a solid million. He’s an Iraqi but is legit, has been here for 30 years. (Mark Middleton has already asked for this.)”

Richard Ben-Veniste, Arnold’s attorney, said his client made the call as a favor to Middleton and not to raise money for the party. However, he could not explain why Arnold used the phrase “solid million.”

Arnold’s call was followed by a series of eight Middleton messages for Bowles pushing a meeting between Clinton and Kirdar.

On April 28, 1995, Middleton said: “Wanted to see if we had a time yet for Mr. Kirdar’s visit with the president either today or tomorrow.”

On July 20, 1995: “Nemir Kirdar is leaving town Monday and we had promised him a short meeting with POTUS during this visit.”

According to White House officials, Bowles asked the National Security Council staff to check out Kirdar and received a verbal reply indicating that there was no reason why the Iraqi businessman should not meet with Clinton.

Middleton ushered Kirdar into the Oval Office on July 26 at 6:20 p.m. The two men sat opposite one another as Clinton sipped a diet soda.

Because Middleton represented the meeting as a social visit, no presidential aides accompanied Clinton. But much of the session was spent discussing the prospects for peace in the Middle East, according to Kirdar and White House officials.

A White House photographer took a picture of the two together. The photo was later sent to the Iraqi businessman and copies now hang in his offices in New York City and London, along with photos of Kirdar with former President Bush, former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major and Jordan’s King Hussein.

Two months after the meeting, Middleton went back to Bowles with another request to get Kirdar an invitation to a White House reception after the historic Middle East peace accord ceremony.

“He really should be there,” Middleton’s message said. “Can we see that he is put on the list?” Kirdar said he did not ask to attend the reception and did not get an invitation.

Kirdar, whose family once had close ties to the Iraqi monarchy and is active in university international study programs, said he assumed that Clinton was interested in his input as a businessman with considerable experience in global affairs.

He said he was never asked for money and had no idea that Middleton or the White House might be cultivating him as a future benefactor for Clinton-related projects, or for anything else.

“I am absolutely puzzled and very disappointed if that was his motive. It is very naive of him,” Kirdar said. “If he knew me and what I stand for, he wouldn’t fool around with me like that because he wouldn’t get a positive answer.”

* RENO IS ‘MAD’: Attorney general expresses anger about videotapes. A15


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