Gore's met the enemy

The vice president's multiple fund-raising scandals don't add up to much legally or politically until you factor in his ability to stick his foot in his mouth.

Published March 15, 2000 6:30PM (EST)

"The evil that men do lives after them," says Shakespeare's Mark Anthony. But when it comes to American presidents and presidential aspirants, it is their weasel words as much as any evil deeds which often seem to resonate most profoundly:

I am not a crook.

I did not have sexual relations with that woman.

No controlling legal authority.

It is, of course, that last utterly cynical and defensive assessment by Al Gore which makes the 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising scandal still a live issue for the Republicans. What would otherwise be dull bits of video -- a Buddhist temple fund-raiser, Congressional testimony by Charlie Trie -- become vivid political cinema thanks to the vice president's four-word voice-over.

After his moment of triumph on Super Tuesday, the past week has been rough for the vice president. Clinton-Gore fund-raiser Maria Hsia was convicted of campaign-finance law violations. One of Janet Reno's legion of enemies leaked Justice Department memos describing the internal debate over whether to name an independent counsel to investigative Vice President Gore's 1996 dialing-for-dollars. And then, Ken Starr's successor Robert Ray went public with his schedule for filing otherwise-secret reports on Filegate, Travelgate, sex-life perjury and other whatever other accusations remain against the Clinton White House.

On the surface, this week seemed like a throwback to the worst days of the Lewinsky saga: three, count them three, separate arenas of scandal, each ready to spin out of control.

There's no doubt that Clinton-Gore 96 held the all-time record for political-donation arm twisting, at least until George W. Bush came along. Whether out of loyalty to his boss or the desire to get some names for his own black book, Gore's shameless pimping in 1996 leaves the vice president with plenty to answer for in the campaign-finance morass.

That said, when it comes down to it there is less to this week's sturm und drang than Republicans might hope. Consider each would-be scandal, in reverse order of their appearance on the front page:

1. Does the promised series of reports from independent counsel Ray spell trouble for Gore or Senate candidate Hillary? Come on. Ray is succeeding Starr the way men with brooms follow elephants at the circus. The first of Ray's reports will reportedly clear the president and his advisors of any culpability for the FBI file fiasco. Travelgate, dating back to the first weeks of the Clinton administration, has been a non-starter for years. As for prosecuting one or the other of the Clintons, the public bears such lingering ill-will toward the whole Ken Starr operation that any new prosecution by this final janitorial squad will ensure Democratic presidents for the next 25 years.

2. Did Janet Reno shield the administration from investigation? This week's leaked Justice Department memos show that Gore came closer than previously known to facing an independent counsel investigation of his own.
But the fact that Attorney General Janet Reno decided to let the Justice Department's career prosecutors handle the case doesn't necessarily spell cover-up. Law firms argue strategy all the time, and managing partners sometimes make unpopular calls.

To the contrary: the Justice Department's campaign-finance division won more convictions and guilty pleas in the 1996 Clinton-Gore fund-raising scandal than did Ken Starr or any of the other Independent Counsels probing Clinton cabinet members. Even U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, the chair of the Government Operations Committee who bitterly criticized Reno's decision to handle the matter in-house, now praises the investigation. "I don't know who was more surprised, me or the Justice Department," he said the other day.

3. But what about the Buddhist temple scandal? After all, Clinton-Gore fund-raiser Maria Hsieh was convicted of five counts. True enough. But Hsieh's conviction is far more legally and politically clouded than is generally understood. Hsia, you'll recall, was convicted March 3 of filing false reports to the Federal Elections Commission after raising more than $100,000 during Gore's 1996 visit to the Hsi Lai Temple in Hacienda Heights, Calif. The charge was that Hsia acted as a go-between, encouraging individuals associated with the temple to make contributions which later investigation showed to be reimbursed from the temple's treasury.

But Hsia's conviction appears to be both selective and circumstantial. Though charged with making false statements to the FEC, her signature appears on no campaign-finance report. As defense lawyer Nancy Luque pointed out in her summation, "There's no evidence that Maria Hsia ever saw any of those checks or that she knew the check-writers were reimbursed."

This is not just defense-lawyer rhetoric: So sketchy is the evidence that U.S. District Court Judge Paul Friedman in Washington dismissed most of the case in its opening phases, saying that only an "Alice in Wonderland-like maze of logical leaps and tangled inferences" could hold Hsia responsible for donations whose source she was never told, or for campaign finance reports filed by others. The case was reinstated only after Friedman was overruled by the D.C. Court of Appeals, a notably conservative panel where independent counsel Ken Starr formerly served.

What's more, there is a real possibility that Hsia's conviction will not stand. Chastened by the Court of Appeals, Friedman reluctantly allowed her trial to proceed -- but he carefully reserved the right to dismiss the case even after a verdict, a highly unusual step. Friedman has now delayed Hsia's sentencing until May so he can decide whether the whole matter should once again be pitched out the window.

Hsia, a high-rolling campaign fund-raiser, is not a particularly appealing character. But in some respects her conviction bears a striking resemblance to the espionage prosecution of Wen Ho Lee: prosecuted under campaign-finance laws which protect both donors and political parties, leaving a go-between like Hsia the only available scapegoat. With Republicans ready to run videotape of the temple fund-raiser to ridicule the vice president, the whole case may soon look like another example of Asia-bashing.

In a presidential year, all of this only resonates if the 1996 campaign finance scandal gains some traction with voters. If it does, it will likely be because of that defensive and tone-deaf streak in Gore himself. Increasingly, his accounts of his own role in patently petty decisions -- whether he knew the Temple event had turned into a DNC fund-raiser, or from which telephone to make his fund-raising calls -- are being challenged by memos, memories of aides like Leon Panetta and photos. The facts are less important than Gore's dissembling and faulty memory. Under pressure, the self-destructive Gore of "no controlling legal authority" still seems perilously close to the surface.

By Bruce Shapiro

Bruce Shapiro is national correspondent for Salon News.

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