Hurting Hillary's hopes

The trial of the senator's ex-campaign finance chief for lying to the FEC provides new ammunition for her conservative critics.

Published May 16, 2005 2:18PM (EDT)

It all sounds horribly familiar. Financial skullduggery, calls for a Senate investigation and the whiff of a sex scandal caught on tape. And all of it whirling around the Clinton name. A court case involving the fundraising activities of Sen. Hillary Clinton's former campaign finance chief threatens to put a time bomb under the former first lady's presidential ambitions.

The case, in which David Rosen, 40, is denying three charges of making false statements to the Federal Election Commission, has opened the lid on an allegedly murky world of Democratic fundraising, FBI wiretapping and salacious gossip about prostitutes for senior figures in the party.

Clinton, prosecutors stress, is not personally involved in the trial, which began last week in Los Angeles district court, but the case is threatening to derail her preparations for a bid for the White House in three years' time. Even if Rosen is cleared, the case is likely to provide ammunition for her conservative critics.

The problems began at a glamorous fundraising event in 2000 when Hillary Clinton was campaigning for her Senate seat in New York. Billed as a lavish and star-studded farewell by Hollywood to outgoing President Bill Clinton, the party at a Beverly Hills mansion was attended by such star names as Cher, Brad Pitt and Diana Ross.

The event's organizer, entrepreneur Peter Paul, is believed to have spent more than $1.2 million on it. But Rosen told the commission it cost $400,000, which means that at least $800,000 could have gone illegally into Clinton's campaign coffers. This, if it is proved true, would be a serious breach of America's strict campaign finance laws. Rosen faces a maximum jail sentence of 15 years and up to $250,000 in fines if he is found guilty.

Even though there has been no suggestion that Clinton knew about the alleged crimes, her name has already dominated the proceedings. Potential jurors were questioned about their feelings toward the senator.

One of her friends, James Levin, told the court the charges were part of a smear campaign. "I thought, and I still think, they were politically motivated," he said.

The case has highlighted a growing network of Republicans and other conservatives who are gearing up to attack Hillary Clinton's nascent 2008 campaign. One of them, the veteran Arthur Finkelstein, has set up a "Stop Her Now" Web site with the objective of raising $10 million to bankroll anti-Clinton activities.

Another site, the Hillary Clinton Accountability Project, was designed by the webmasters behind the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth group that helped to defeat Democratic Sen. John Kerry in last year's presidential election.

Judicial Watch, a body that highlighted various scandals involving the Clinton White House, filed papers with the Senate ethics committee last week claiming that Hillary Clinton must have known that Rosen's filings to the FEC were false.

Conservative publishing house Sentinel has announced plans to publish a tell-all book called "The Truth About Hillary" this year. The appearance of the book, being written by journalist Edward Klein, is gleefully awaited by Republicans.

Although Clinton is popular with many grass-roots Democrats, she has some party bosses feeling nervous. "She is just such an easy target," said Shaun Bowler, a political scientist at the University of California.

The main evidence against Rosen is taped conversations he allegedly had with Ray Reggie, brother-in-law of Sen. Edward Kennedy. In transcripts leaked to a New Orleans newspaper, Rosen and Reggie talk about the fundraiser, apparently admitting its cost. The pair swap salacious asides that could also cause political damage. At one point Rosen describes how a donor to the Democratic Party sent prostitutes to the hotel rooms of two senior Clinton loyalists after a night of drinking.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that organizer Paul was convicted of trafficking cocaine in 1979 and has been convicted of trying to defraud the Cuban government in a coffee-trading scheme. Aaron Tonken, another organizer of similar events for Democrats, is now in prison for a charity fraud.

Such links provide much material for Hillary Clinton's many critics on the right and the left to play with. It has also dealt a blow to her efforts to move her politics to the center by appearing softer on social issues such as abortion and harder on defense issues such as military spending and Iraq.

"This sort of thing just serves to remind people of the '90s scandals like Whitewater and the Monica Lewinsky affair," said Bowler. "Some Democrats have short memories -- but I don't think that a lot of American voters do."

By Paul Harris

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