JUST WHEN ONE thought that the Clinton/Gore fundraising machine's remarkable combination of cupidity and stupidity had lost its power to astonish, the revelation that the White House actually videotaped the fundraisers held there has transformed the Donorgate scandal into Theater of the Absurd.
The taping of these access-selling caffeine fixes was, to borrow Talleyrand's famous phrase, worse than a crime, it was a mistake. Why? Because the fact that their existence was concealed from the Justice Department makes a mockery of Janet Reno's claims to have carried out a competent and independent inquest into the sleazy campaign cash collections of the president and his closest aides. The White House fundraising scandal has dragged on as long as it has because the president's men wrote everything down, documenting their legal floutings with such an unconcerned arrogance that only unfettered hubris can explain it all. Power, as they say, corrupts.
With Time's revelations that the organized boodlings were taped, it is clear that the Clintonoids learned nothing from Watergate. First they tried to satisfy the inevitable firestorm of curiosity by releasing edited versions of the tapes. Only 44 cassettes have been made public as of this writing, although the Washington Post reports that at least 150 fundraising events at the White House were recorded. And on the tape of one access-selling orgy featuring the notorious funny-money bundler John Hwang, the audio is conveniently missing. Edited tapes and an audio gap--the parallels with Richard Nixon's coverup of his crimes are so blatant as to be laughable.
Janet Reno's argument, in her defense brief for the president last Friday, that she had found no "credible evidence" to trigger the independent-counsel statute came just one day after a front-page New York Times story found that the Clintonoids had illegally transferred at least $32 million to state Democratic parties to pay for more TV ads. As Jill Abramson and Leslie Wayne put it in their report, "the plan was conceived and coordinated by the Clinton/Gore campaign staff and Democratic Party officials as an end-run around legal spending limits... The Clinton campaign had agreed to the limits in return for accepting millions of dollars in public financing." This amounts to a conspiracy to obtain taxpayer dollars by fraud. Add--to mention but three of the more odoriferous Clinton shakedowns--the systematic transfer of millions in soft-money contributions to hard-money accounts by the Democratic National Committee; the DNC money-laundering scandal to help Ron Carey's re-election as Teamsters president; and fugitive oil-financier Roger Tamraz's purchase of six encounters with the president for $300,000 in campaign cash. This outpouring of evidence spells willful blindness on Reno's part.
The independent-counsel law was created on the common-sense assumption that no administration of either party can properly investigate itself. If there were any doubts that Reno is in a self-evident conflict of interest, the revelation that the White House was able to conceal the videotapes from her less-than-zealous Justice Department underlings should remove those doubts.
The fact is that Reno has been a perfectly execrable attorney general, who on her watch has countenanced and endorsed a series of assaults on the Bill of Rights worthy of an Ed Meese. To wit: Clinton's Oklahoma City-driven Anti-Terrorist Bill, drawn so broadly that it would have barred the AFL-CIO from helping Nelson Mandela's African National Congress; the Clinton demand for FBI access to any and all computer messages it wants (the electronic equivalent of the Post Office opening all of one's mail); the FBI's proposal for unparalleled access to medical records, hitherto the most sacred of privileged documents; the one-strike-and-you're-out edict for federal public housing, permitting the expulsion of an entire family if any of its members is accused--not convicted, mind you--of selling so much as a single joint; and more.
The tape scandal, however, shows that Reno is not simply inconscient but incompetent (and that's the charitable interpretation). A year ago, Common Cause petitioned Reno for a special prosecutor to investigate the fundraising practices of both major political parties, a request that the A.G. rejected out of hand. Common Cause was right then. The disclosures of the last few weeks show that, more than ever, it's right now.
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